WATERLOO | Kicking the can down the road is a common phrase lobbed by both political partisans to criticize lawmakers’ inaction on budget issues.
But bipartisan groups Fix the Debt and The Concord Coalition say there’s not much more time for the can to be kicked.
That’s why they’re uniting for a 2016 presidential project called “First Budget” aimed at getting the candidates running for the nation’s highest office to start tackling this difficult topic.
“The window of phase-in is shrinking. … These long-term problems are not long-term anymore. Many of them are right around the corner, but they are definitely going to be really, really big in the second term of our next president,” said Sara Imhof, director of education and grassroots advocacy for The Concord Coalition.
“Every year that passes, we’re losing our ability to phase-in as much as we wanted to, to have more planning involved, and less deeper cuts or tax reforms that raise revenue,” she concludes.
Mike Murphy, chief of staff and director of strategic initiatives for Fix the Debt, said the “First Budget” project is aimed at getting presidential candidates to do five things: acknowledge the national debt is a problem; make dealing with the debt a priority; put forward a plan; pay for their priorities; and engage the public on those proposals.
“We’re not naive to the political realities. Some of the things that have to be done to address this are tough,” Murphy said. “We wouldn’t expect people to be putting forward 50-point plans, specific budgets out there … but we think that they should put forward enough for people to get a sense of what they would do when they take office.”
Murphy said putting forth a plan is important, but he doesn't want to take anything off the table.
The groups are also encouraging the public, specifically in the early primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire, to engage presidential hopefuls on their viewpoints and ask them what their “first budget” would look like if they are elected.
Part of the urgency is the growing role interest payments on the national debt take on as a percent of the gross domestic product.
According to the groups, interest on the debt is the fastest-growing category of federal spending. Without action, by 2025 interest will cost more than the current “combined federal spending on the Defense Department, education, transportation and medical research.”
Murphy said there is growing interest from the public to see politicians tackle the debt, and the current inaction is a prominent example of the frustration people have with Congress. A January Gallup poll showed Americans giving Congress a 16 percent approval rating, 5 percentage points highest than its record-low of 9 percent.
Though the groups have been involved in many debt-reduction discussions over the years, Murphy and Imhof said there’s no one path to address the nation’s debt. They simply want to see candidates put forth realistic proposals.
To them, a realistic proposal is something that slows the growth of federal health care spending, makes Social Security sustainable, reforms the federal tax code and protects critical investments that promote economic growth.
Imhof said the goal is not to look for “gotcha” moments but rather to provide a way for candidates to to talk about the issue. As an example, Imhof praised -- without endorsing -- potential 2016 Republican candidate Chris Christie for being willing to propose entitlement reforms.
“Our bar for the success of our campaign is low. It’s literally that they will accept what is and try to work with their administration and their party and with Congress, who they’re going to have to work with, to make some progress when they get in office,” Imhof said.