National Town Hall Meeting To Take On The Deficit

This Saturday, April 26, people across the country will join in a virtual national town hall meeting organized by AmericaSpeaks. It’s an old organization, though new to me that seeks to give “citizens an authentic voice in … decision-making on the most challenging public issues of the day.”

It’s picked a doozy for the national town hall meeting. What should our national priorities be and how should we pay for them?

The meeting, it says, will kick off an ongoing education and communications effort to ensure that the values and priorities participants agree on are heard and listened to by decision-makers in Washington, D.C.

The context here is, of course, the enormous — in some cases, inordinate — concern about the deficit.

President Obama has made some abortive efforts to co-opt Republicans, who claim the deficit-hawk mantle, except when it comes to providing tax benefits for wealthy individuals and businesses.

He’s imposed a three-year freeze on total discretionary spending, except the big-ticket Defense Department budget and other appropriations for national security. I’ve cited concerns about this as part of a broader review of the issues on the Poverty in America blog.

He’s also established a bipartisan commission to make recommendations for putting the budget in primary balance by Fiscal Year 2015, i.e., for adjusting spending and/or tax provisions so that all federal programs and operations are paid for.

Whether the commission can actually converge on recommendations that the required 14 out of 18 members agree on is an open question. But even recommendations by smaller groups could be very influential.

We, the American public, have limited input into the President’s proposed budgets — except through our support for public interest organizations. We’ve got no input at all into the deliberations of the fiscal commission.

That’s where the AmericaSpeaks town hall comes in.

There are several things I like about the project. One is the implicit faith in grassroots democracy. The entire enterprise, after all, is rooted in the belief that a broad spectrum of everyday people can have a civil conversation about issues so entwined with personal beliefs and interests — and actually come to some sort of consensus.

Another is that AmericaSpeaks has the resources to bring off an ambitious agenda — not just funding, which seems to be considerable, but knowledge and talent. Exhibit A is its new primer on the federal budget and our fiscal challenges. Big print, simple words, lots of graphs. And, overall, the best introduction to the long-term, structural deficit I’ve read.

A third is that it’s genuinely nonpartisan. Advisory committee members represent a very broad spectrum of interests and core beliefs about the proper role of government. The list ranges from top officials at the liberal-leaning Economic Policy Institute and like-minded research organizations to their counterparts at the Hudson Institute and the Heritage Foundation. This, I think, gives the project a high degree of credibility.

That said, the project is a big risk. Organizers aim to reflect the demographics of the communities where the in-person meetings will be held. But the meetings could still be dominated by tea party types and other right-wingers who rightly perceive an opportunity to shape the message AmericaSpeaks is committed to delivering. The risk seems even greater for the volunteer-sponsored “community conversations” and the online discussion.

So I think it’s important that as many of us as possible take some time out from our regular Saturday routines to participate in the national town hall meeting. (“Us” here means people who don’t believe that dismantling the safety net is the right way to curb the deficit.)

There are 19 meeting sites — none, alas, near Washington, D.C. But we who live in the Washington metro area can register for the virtual conversation. And, of course, we can pass the word along to friends and family near one of the in-person sites.

UPDATE: Some time after I posted this, the Center for Economic and Policy Research issued a critique of the AmericaSpeaks budget primer. I don’t agree with all the objections. For example, CEPR seems to believe that the document should have factored in future efforts to reduce the budget, while the enter national town hall exercise was designed to engage participants in deciding what should be done to change the current course. However, in the main, I defer to CEPR’s expertise.

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