The political stalemate in Washington regarding the deficit and sequestration is not as dire or depressing as most people and pundits proclaim, and is in fact a positive sign that the country is grappling with important matters, according to a Democrat and Republican who have been in the thick of American politics for years.
Howard Dean, former Vermont governor, Democratic presidential candidate and head of the Democratic National Committee, and Judd Gregg, a Republican and former U.S. senator and governor of New Hampshire, provided a rare optimistic assessment of Washington politics before a Workers’ Compensation Research Institute audience yesterday in Cambridge, Mass.
In an outpouring of bipartisanship and civility perhaps made easier by the fact neither is running for office, the conservative Republican and liberal Democrat generally agreed about the problems facing the country and what to do about them.
Their biggest disagreement was over which state makes the best maple syrup.
When they disagreed, they did so calmly and without waffling, often with humor, and without interrupting each other or calling each other names.
Although neither predicted a political fix before March 1 when the across-the-board sequestration cuts take effect, both cited examples of recent political moves that they believe indicate progress is being made.
Overall, they expressed confidence that Washington will eventually address the deficit.
“Our political process is not linear,” said Gregg, “it is very, very ugly.”
Paraphrasing Churchill who said “We can always count on the Americans to do the right thing, after they have exhausted all the other possibilities,” Gregg said, “I think we are in the process of working on the wrong steps to get to the right result.”
Gregg said the sequester debate is “good news” because it puts the focus on spending and entitlements reform, which he believes is where the focus should be. The New Hampshire Republican said a solution is “entirely attainable” and he believes Washington is moving in that direction.
Neither politician seemed too concerned about the looming across-the-board cuts from sequestration.
“I am for going over the cliff,” said Dean, explaining that he thinks it is worth letting the sequestration cuts happen because they will reduce the defense budget, something Congress would never vote to do.
Dean downplayed the effect on the economy of what happens in Washington. “This is still an incredibly strong country. Congress doesn’t run this economy,” he said, arguing that individual business owners don’t need Washington to keep the economy going.
Gregg stressed the importance of the U.S. attacking the deficit by bringing entitlement programs including Medicare and Social Security under control. He said failure to address the deficit would label this generation as the first ever not to pass a stronger country onto the next generation.
The $250 billion the country is paying in interest on the debt “is money out the window” and is not being spent on needed programs, Gregg said.
Dean agreed the country has a spending problem that in his view includes the defense budget along with Medicare.
The two said they saw some moves that indicate Washington is moving toward addressing the deficit.
Gregg applauded President Obama for putting the annual cost-of-living increases under Social Security on the table for discussion, a move Gregg said is “huge” for a Democrat and the kind of step that is needed to reach a deal.
Dean praised House Speaker John Boehner for being willing to bring to a vote two bills that did not have a majority of the House Republican caucus behind them. “This is very risky for him but the right thing to do,” Dean said.
“I think this is painful but the sequester debate will get us to substantive reform on taxes and spending,” said Gregg.
Gregg championed the Simpson-Bowles proposal as a solution. Gregg was a member of that presidential commission.
Continuing in the bipartisan spirit, Gregg said the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, D- Mass., was the best legislator he has ever seen because although he had his own strong opinions, he knew he had to compromise to move things forward and he did.
Gregg said that the House of Representatives is “structurally inoperable” because too many districts that have been gerrymandered into safe districts for extreme partisans but that there is “a working center” in the Senate. He said the House would remain stratified until the redistricting problem is fixed.
Dean agreed redistricting is a problem and urged that the task be taken away from elected politicians, as several states have done.
Dean said both sides have to give up something to fix the budget and the “political process is trying to address this” and that is good news.
The Democrat said everyone, not just the rich, need to feel the pain of paying down the deficit, including the middle class that must accept some tax hikes and cuts in Medicare benefits.
Dean said Washington needs more people with the courage to act. “They have to be willing to say we need to fix the problem even if they don’t get re-elected.”
Gregg echoed that sentiment, saying that political leaders have to be willing to “take a hit” and provide cover for their colleagues to vote for things that might not sit well with their constituents back home.
Dean, who is a medical-doctor-turned-politician, offered his prescription for controlling the costs of Medicare. He said medical costs have been out of control for 35 years under the model of paying doctors for every test or procedure. He said that the medical system needs to shift from paying doctors for procedures or utilization to paying them by the patient or for outcomes. Gregg agreed.
“Just shifting the costs to the patient doesn’t work,” said Dean, because the patient does not have any control over costs.
Dean said he’d like to see a third political party to “send a wake-up call” to both Democrats and Republicans and thinks this could happen with the younger generation. He said the current two parties are both controlled by big donors and not listening to average Americans.
The Vermont Democrat said he is very optimistic about the future because he believes young people have an “entirely different mindset.” Whereas the older generation finds the 15 percent where they disagree, the younger generation finds the 85 percent where they agree and, where necessary, they will simply bypass broken institutions like the media and government to forge their own solutions via the Internet, according to the former governor.
Gregg said he, too, is optimistic. He said he sees “extraordinary economic expansion” ahead for the U.S. due in part to the fact that the U.S. will no longer be an importer of oil but will become an exporter of oil.
Both agreed the U.S. has what it takes to compete with and beat the Chinese.
As for the maple syrup, Vermonter Dean thanked Gregg for a gift of the New Hampshire variety. He said it made his car run a lot better.