This week, I was back in Florida and we did something a little different. In the past, I've held a lot town halls -- particularly about the budget. But this time, instead of getting up and giving a presentation and then getting feedback, the town halls this week were entirely audience-driven.
To make a long story short, the Concord Coalition, a non-partisan group focused on budget issues, has put together a program in which audience members split up into small groups. Each group is given a packet that contains everything you would need to come up with a full-fledged budget proposal for the federal government.
The groups review spending programs, tax policy, and things like Social Security and Medicare, etc. They work through the materials and at the end, vote on what their final budget proposal will be. I don't want to speak for the participants, but from what I observed, it was a truly valuable experience.
I think all Americans would be better served if they had access to this sort of experience. The news media, and the politicians who communicate through it, almost have to oversimplify things. The federal budget is thousands and thousands of pages long. Take the tax code alone, for instance -- 70,000 pages worth of policy. The defense budget, the other eleven agency appropriations bills, the mandatory spending programs like food stamps, Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security -- they are all complicated. To try to minimize the scale of the problem so solutions can fit into catchy slogans may be tempting, but it won't fix anything.
I can't tell you how many times I've heard people say something like, "all we need to do is just get rid of the earmarks and all that pork barrel spending." That sounds good, but the truth is more complicated. The House did eliminate earmarks and all told, it added up to less that one half of one percent of spending. When the deficit is over forty percent of total spending, you've got a lot more work to do after earmarks. The same holds true for things like foreign aid. I strongly believe that we need to scale back foreign aid -- particularly to these countries that don't like us -- but the truth is, foreign aid is also only about one percent of the budget and that isn't going to get us home either.
The low hanging fruit, at this point, has been picked over pretty well by Congress. They cut that stuff and put out press releases patting themselves on the back, when the truth is, they haven't stood up for anything. The honest ones will tell you that there aren't a whole lot of easy decisions left. Everything at this point is trade-offs. If you decrease federal funding for anything that means somebody's priorities aren't going to get met. That's a hard thing to do, but it's necessary.
I think that's what impressed me so much about the success the groups found in coming to a consensus. Out of almost thirty separate groups at three separate events, only one group failed to find meaningful savings and consequently voted to increase the deficit. The highest amount of deficit savings was $5.7 trillion and the average was around $3 trillion. That's a pretty good track record. The groups argued, debated, compromised, yelled and apologized, but at the end of it all, they reached a consensus. They had a solution to put on the table. That's the way it's supposed to happen. It makes you wonder how after three years running, the United States Senate still hasn't produced one single budget proposal. That's pretty sorry. I had thirty groups of citizen legislators who got it done in just a couple of hours.
I think at the end of the day, that is the really encouraging thing it can be done. We can find solutions that fix the problems -- solutions that nobody is happy about, but that everybody can live with. We're going to have to find those solutions sooner or later. That just may mean having a few more citizens and a few less politicians in Washington.
That's my two cents. All in all, it was a great week back home.