Dole Institute exercise reveals trade-offs in federal budget cutting

Monday’s federal budget deficit exercise at the Dole Institute of Politics at Kansas University did the seemingly impossible: It made people feel compassion for Congress.

That may seem hard to believe, when four-fifths of the country disapproves of the job Congress is doing, but trying to reduce the deficit is a little more difficult when you are the one faced with the decisions, which have wide-ranging impacts on the lives of real people.

That said, it’s easier to do when it’s just an exercise. That showed Monday, when most of the handful of “committees” made up of members of the public were successful in cutting at least $2 trillion from the federal deficit over the next decade; one even got to $3 trillion. It’s easier still when there are no lobbyists around to try to change your opinion, you all live in the same geographic area, and only a small number of constituencies are represented.


Play the federal budget challenge here

While the federal budget deficit is projected to be down nearly half from the last fiscal year, to $670 billion from $1.7 trillion, long-term budgetary issues remain, mainly because of the projected increases in spending on programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

“We can’t continue to borrow $1 for every $3 we spend,” former U.S. Rep. Tom Tauke, R-Iowa, said Monday.

Jim Slattery, Lawrence’s former congressman, commented that it isn’t fair for one generation of Americans to stick the one behind it with the bill. But coming up with a solution will require compromise, as it did when Slattery was in Washington.

“We learned that if we would listen to each other and learn from one another, there were ways to solve big problems in this country,” said Slattery, a Democrat. “I’m still old fashioned enough … to believe that our elected leaders do reflect the will of the people.”

But event organizers left it up to about 25 community members to decide: If you were in Congress, how would you cut the deficit?

“You won’t have enough time. You won’t have enough information. You won’t have as many options as you thought you had,” said Robert Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, which designed Monday’s exercise.

Attendees split into groups of five or so, and took on the task of reducing a more-than-half-a-trillion-dollar deficit in the budget of the U.S. government, which was harder than it sounds. Because even among groups of seemingly like-minded people, contrasts existed: the Social Security recipient who would be reluctant to have his benefits reduced, the self-employed woman who believes she pays more than her fair share in taxes already, the college student who will cut just about anything because not much of it affects him.

And the options that would reduce the most from the deficit? Those seem like the ones to target, until you realize they are the biggest because they affect the broadest spectrum of Americans.

In real life, these decisions have obvious ramifications. Make the wrong one, and it becomes the content for your opponent’s next campaign ad. Or worse, it negatively impact the lives of the people you were elected to represent.

That’s why Slattery reminded participants that there are “immediate and direct political consequences to each of these choices.”

The other option, though, is to continue with the status quo. As Tauke said, “Do I want to pass on to my kids a legacy where I took and expected them to pay?”