No Debating It: Kyl, Dorgan Deserve Credit on Floor Debate

Posted September 23, 2003 at 3:24pm

Regular readers of Roll Call know that one of my favorite hobby horses over the past decade and more has been the lack of real deliberation and debate in Congress. [IMGCAP(1)]

After some vigorous hectoring a decade ago, I managed to induce the House to experiment with a handful of formal prime-time debates on major issues on the House floor. But they were not smashingly successful, primarily because the House insisted on soothing the egos of every relevant committee and subcommittee leader and creating debates with far too many people having fragments of time to make assertions or ask questions. By the third and final experimental debate, the House was getting the format in order, but inertia took over and the exercise was abandoned.

I addressed this issue again in a Roll Call column in March, lamenting the lack of a full-fledged debate on going to war in Iraq. I wrote then, “Here is a realistic proposal: Once a month, the Senate will set aside a two-hour block at 9 p.m. The two leaders, Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Minority Leader Thomas Daschle (D-S.D.), will choose an important issue before the nation and Congress — it might be policy toward North Korea, dealing with the uninsured, tort reform, tax cuts, or any of the dozens of key issues that need resolution or are on peoples’ minds, and that have serious differences in policy approaches on the table. They will frame a formal debate on the issue, with two Senators on either side. Each of the four will have seven and one-half minutes to present a case, followed by five minutes each of rebuttal, with 10 minutes for free-flowing give-and-take. In the second hour, other Senators will take to the floor for a more traditional debate on the subject.”

Lo and behold, the Senate actually held the first such debate Monday night. The initiative was taken by the two Policy Committee chairmen, John Kyl (R-Ariz.) and Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.). They staged a one-hour debate on Social Security private accounts with two debaters on either side — Sens. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and John Sununu (R-N.H.) in the affirmative and Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Jon Corzine (D-N.J.) in the negative.

Admittedly, it was a wonk’s dream, and the exercise occasionally got stilted. But for a first effort, it was admirable. The four were knowledgeable, articulate and accomplished. The debate did include occasional accusations of demagoguery but was most notable for its civility, which itself is remarkable given recent history in Congress. And it is doubly remarkable given the incendiary politics of Social Security.

The Policy committees have promised that the debate will be one in an ongoing series, albeit not as often as once a month. I hope they will continue to push this, refining the format, sometimes mixing and matching Democrats and Republicans (not all important issues divide on partisan or left/right lines) and next time publicizing the damn thing so that more people know it is coming. These debates will not supplant the cable shout shows or attain ratings like “Meet the Press with Tim Russert.” But over time, they can become an important venue for opinion leaders to see how issues are playing out, with excerpts used on shows such as the “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer” and “Nightline,” and can be a vehicle for citizens (and maybe presidential candidates) to educate themselves on the key issues. Along the way, they can restore a bit of respect to Congress and meaning to the term “greatest deliberative body.”

I hope House leaders noticed this and will give debates a second try. In fact, this would be a constructive place for Rules Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.) to put his energies.

The Senate appropriately chose a highly divisive, controversial and important subject for this first debate. We have a huge, long-term fiscal dilemma in America, centered in Washington and built around the Big Three entitlements of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Combined, they are nearly 43 percent of the entire federal budget and 8 percent of our gross domestic product. The baby boom generation is on the verge of claiming its rightful piece of this multilayered pie (contrary to popular belief, Medicaid is largely a program for the elderly via long-term care), asking for a share that will keep on growing at an explosive rate. Social Security is the largest piece of this pie.

As income tax cuts have proliferated, payroll taxes have become by far the largest tax burden on the vast majority of Americans (making it particularly ridiculous when the administration and its acolytes argued against an expansion of the child credit to those paying payroll taxes but no income taxes by arguing they pay no taxes). Those payroll taxes currently take in more revenue than is paid out for current Social Security recipients; the surpluses in the Social Security system are used to finance our general budget deficits. As the work force declines via aging and the Social Security-eligible population rises, payroll tax revenues will cease to produce surpluses and will eventually move into deficit. That is a long-term headache we have to reduce. At the same time, we have to confront the reality that, without changing the growth path of Social Security and the other big entitlements downward, they will be 77 percent of the budget and 18 percent of GDP by 2040, leaving no room for anything else in government.

How can we make Social Security both solvent over the long run and contained in its relative growth? This is the $64 trillion question. It is one that Congress and the president have studiously avoided debating in a serious way. The president did set up a blue ribbon commission early on the issue but did not invest it with the kind of credibility or urgency possessed by the Greenspan Commission in 1983. And the president has barely mentioned the issue since. So at least now the Senate has devoted a concentrated hour to it.

The hour was focused on one serious proposal, turning a portion of Social Security to private accounts controlled by recipients. Whatever the merits of the proposal — and Santorum and Sununu effectively noted the wide range of other countries that have embraced some version of private accounts — there was one question left embarrassingly unanswered after being raised repeatedly by Corzine and Durbin. If we divert one-sixth of the payroll tax to private accounts in a pay-as-you-go system, we will need about $1.8 trillion to finance the transition by making up the shortfall over the next decades. Where will it come from?

The private accounts proposal had much more traction when we had projections of large surpluses. Now we have comparable projections of budget deficits, which will only grow as tax cuts are made permanent and costs of homeland security and Iraq grow. Unless we find the revenues to do private accounts, we would simply take elephantine deficits and make them mammothian, building in structural deficits of nightmarish proportions. And even if we did find the revenues, neither side of last night’s debate was willing to countenance anything that would keep Social Security from acting like a giant tapeworm, crowding out other worthy programs as it grows. That means discussing things like extending the retirement age, including early retirement, adjusting cost-of-living formulas, or some modest form of means testing.

So kudos to the Senate, and especially Kyl and Dorgan, for their first debate. And let’s make preparations for the next steps — not just more prime-time debates on important issues, but real efforts to take on the 8 million-pound entitlement gorilla.