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A Lack of Fiscal Leadership

A consistent theme emerged at our Leadership Briefing this morning on the fiscal crisis and its effect on government: There's a distinct lack of leadership in the White House on Capitol Hill on this issue. All three panelists -- Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget; Thomas H. Stanton, a fellow in the Center for the Study of American Government at Johns Hopkins University; and David M. Walker, former head of the Government Accountability Office and current president of the Comeback America Initiative -- identified a lack of high-level attention to long-term budget problems as a critical factor .

"There's no leadership coming out of the White House," said MacGuineas, partly due to concerns that backing a particular deficit-reduction plan would set off a firestorm of criticism of the president. "Even if people don't like you, you have to do your job," she said.

Meanwhile, lawmakers on Capitol Hill are focusing their attention on short-term items such as eliminating funding for National Public Radio. "Congress is arguing about the bar tab on the Titanic when the ship of state is headed for an iceberg that could sink it," Walker said.

Still, MacGuineas said, she sees a "tiny, tiny, tiny glimmer of hope" that leaders will focus on long-term fiscal issues due to voters' heightened interest in the issue. "The public is well ahead of politicians," she said.

Another group of people need to have more of a voice in deciding how to cut federal spending, Stanton said -- federal managers. "We should be involving the people that run the programs" in decisions about budget cuts, he said. For now, he said, all they are seeing is policies that focus on the federal workforce itself, aimed at freezing pay and executive bonuses. "That's not a good way to treat a workforce if we want to keep good people in government," he said.