Can civility save us from the fiscal cliff?

Alice Rivlin and former Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., co-chaired a fiscal commission in 2010.   Alice Rivlin and former Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., co-chaired a fiscal commission in 2010. J. Scott Applewhite/AP file photo

Though politicians “demagogue” budget issues and use fear to get reelected, a more civil approach to negotiations based on mutual respect and compromise could achieve debt reduction less painful than many have assumed, a pair of federal fiscal combat veterans said at a panel Tuesday.

Alice Rivlin, the first director of the Congressional Budget Office now at the Brookings Institution, reunited with her 2010 fiscal commission co-leader, the former Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., who is now with the Bipartisan Policy Center, to discuss the values that went into their earlier effort to produce a detailed deficit reduction plan.

The pairing of what panel organizers called “political bridge people” at Brookings was moderated for later broadcast by Krista Tippett of American Public Radio as part of a series titled “On Being.” Tippett set out to find answers on why the budget “stalemate seems always to produce outright political warfare clashes followed by fragile compromises that breed fatigue and confusion, then cynicism.”

Rivlin, who formed an alliance with Domenici in the mid-1990s when she was budget director under President Clinton and he chaired the Senate Budget Committee, said the key to their talks that led to the only balanced budgets in recent decades was “mutual respect” and listening to the other side. “We have lost the idea of compromising and coming to a conclusion,” she said, “and gridlock is the worst possible thing because the crisis gets worse if you do nothing.”

Domenici agreed “the people in authority need to know where to go and be willing to sit down,” which is not something current lawmakers are doing, he said. “Not long ago, I literally believed we were on the brink of destroying America, so I knew I had to work like hell to fix it.” He said no one knows precisely how much time is left before calamity strikes. “We don’t have 20 years, but those who say we must do it next month are also kind of crazy,” he said. “It’s too big, so we should first narrow it down to a few things.”

Rivlin said the debt can be stabilized, noting civil discussions took place inside both the Rivlin-Domenici fiscal commission and the official Simpson-Bowles commission, on which she also served. The panels arrived at their proposed solutions after agreeing both parties were responsible for the problems, she said.

“We’re on an unsustainable track in that debt is growing faster than the economy can grow,” Rivlin said. “All the choices to make that not happen are unpleasant,” whether it’s raising revenues or reducing the rate of growth of Medicare and Social Security. “It’s easy to demagogue them if you’re running for public office, to say, `no Medicare cuts’ or ‘I will cut taxes,’ That’s irresponsible talk for those who want to solve the problem.”

The public must understand the words that scare, Domenici added, “so cuts in Medicare becomes ‘Do away with Medicare as we know it.’ But we don’t have to change Medicare a lot, but a little over a long time.” Similarly, on Social Security, “we’re not canceling the program -- in five or 10 years no one will know the difference,” he said. As for raising revenues, “there are hundreds of tax expenditures worth billions, so we choose which ones to eliminate or reduce. You won’t know it for at least five years. We need to convince people, not frighten them.”

Medicare is far too popular and seniors are too powerful a voting force for the program to be destroyed, Rivlin added. She also said the anti-tax hike pledges so popular in recent years are “a fading, last year’s story.”

Both luminaries linked today’s political polarization to the decline in cross-party social life in Washington. “Years ago, lawmakers’ kids played on same soccer fields, they socialized and their wives knew each other,” Rivlin said, “so it was harder to get on the floor and say the other guy is a bad person. Now they get out of town rather than go to a party.”

Domenici recalled the Senate’s bipartisan religious lunches he regularly attended, noting they inspired him to look for a “bipartisan friend” to co-sponsor a bill that “would make beautiful music together.” He called for making Congress “more habitable” for elected officials who want to get together to tackle the debt crisis.

Civility, Rivlin said, “means listening to the other person and getting them to explain why they think what they think. We’re losing that in decision-making in a polarized environment.” Compromise has become a dirty word, she said, yet it’s required by the Constitution.

People should “disagree without being bombastic,” Domenici said. “If you end up being a hater, you take a big or small piece out of our democracy. Do not make this into an unsolvable problem. People should have confidence and faith that we will solve it.”

Both speakers stressed that the “simple, centrist” solutions to the budget morass are generally more acceptable to average citizens than to politicians. “We have not had leadership on the debt reduction issue,” he said, describing how Washington has been “setting up a commission and not accepting results.”

Asked whether the country faces a period of lowered expectations of prosperity for future generations, Rivlin, an economist, said, “I’m not pessimistic about the economy. We had an unnecessary financial crash that was bad because it involved housing, and I’m not surprised that recovery is slow. But there’s nothing wrong with our economy.”

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