What’s Needed on Deficit: Less Talk, More Action

Posted May 3, 2010 at 4:26pm

You might be familiar with the song because you’re old enough to remember when it hit the charts in the late 1960s or because over the past few years you watched the NBC television show “Las Vegas,” which used it as a theme. Either way, Elvis Presley’s “A Little Less Conversation” was an upbeat plea for less talk and more action.

[IMGCAP(1)]And that makes the song, which asks for “A little more bite and a little less bark/ A little less fight and a little more spark,” the perfect anthem for the ongoing debate about the federal budget deficit.

Take last week’s talk fests about the deficit. The National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, the group formed by the president after seven Republican co-sponsors voted against and, therefore, killed the legislation that would have created a Congressional deficit reduction commission, held its first public meeting Tuesday. During the meeting much of what is already known about the budget problem was simply repeated. As far as I can tell, little was said that was new or moved the needle. The following day, an all-star cast of mostly former federal economic and budget policymakers spoke at what was dubbed a “fiscal summit” by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, which convened the meeting to begin what it said would be a “national bipartisan dialogue” about the deficit. That will be followed by what is being called a national town meeting on June 26 that will link discussions on the deficit that will be held simultaneously in 20 cities.

It’s not clear that any of this talk is going to accomplish much. As much as I fervently hope the commission will be able to come up with deficit reduction plan that, as required, will be supported by 14 of its 18 members, it’s not at all clear that the environment has changed to the point where it will be possible for that to happen. The summit was more preaching to the deficit- reduction choir than to the unwashed and seemed to have little, if any, actual effect on budget politics. There’s also little indication that the national town hall meeting will be able to move people away from their so-far-fixed-in-cement position that the deficit should be reduced but spending shouldn’t be cut and taxes shouldn’t be increased to do it.

As the song says, “All this aggravation ain’t satisfactioning me.”

In fact, we’ve already had plenty (or should I say enough?) talk. For more than two decades, the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget has conducted its “Exercise in Hard Choices” around the country to explain what it will take to deal with the budget deficit. Similarly, the Concord Coalition has crisscrossed the country with its “Fiscal Wake-Up Tour” that included Democrats, Republicans, liberals and conservatives who, while not always agreeing on what should be done, talked about the problem and the alternatives. Many public officials have made reducing the deficit their mission in life and have talked about it incessantly. And over the years there have been so many Congressional debates, diatribes and discussions about the deficit that dealing with the issue today often seems like a scene from the movie “Groundhog Day.”

All of this has been based on the notion that educating voters in advance of a solution being offered not only will make them more willing to support a deficit reduction plan, but will also make it more likely that legislators will actually have the courage to come up with something. But after decades of talking, a third-party candidate for president in 1992 who used the issue of reducing the deficit to legitimize his candidacy and some of the biggest names in economics and policymaking warning Chicken Little-style to anyone who’ll listen about the dire consequences of not reducing the deficit, there’s less ability to do something about the situation now than there has ever been. Talking about the problem in general simply hasn’t had the desired result.

So let’s move on. What the deficit reduction debate needs now is a specific plan that the gurus who spoke to the commission and at the summit enthusiastically rally behind. Rather than do what they have been doing — supporting the process by which they will be considered — the economic and budget policymakers who participated in these meetings will have a far more positive effect if they can explain why specific spending cuts and revenue increases are needed and should be adopted.

This is hardly unprecedented: Three of the most respected policymakers of their time — Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay — wrote the Federalist Papers only after the Constitution, the proposed solution to a much earlier intractable economic issue, was drafted. Even in that era’s vastly different communications environment, overeducating voters in advance of the proposed solution would likely have resulted in hardened positions and made ratification more rather than less difficult.

So no matter how much it’s counter to what seems necessary, substituting action for talk on reducing the deficit now might well be the best way to actually make something happen.

Stan has left the building.

Stan Collender is a partner at Qorvis Communications and founder of the blog Capital Gains and Games. He is also the author of “The Guide to the Federal Budget.”