Wanted: an Even Playing Field for the Budget Debate

We have traversed the foothills, but the climb of the Himalayas now begins, to paraphrase one TV pundit’s reflections on the recent budget deal that prevented a government shutdown.

That arduous climb appears to start with one element of common ground – Any attempt to bring about long-term budget deficit reduction will require that politicians on both sides of the aisle address the big ticket items of entitlements, tax structure and military spending. But how does one proceed beyond this modest point of agreement? To date, only a representative of one side of the aisle, Republican Paul Ryan, has put forth a comprehensive proposal that addresses the contentious particulars.

I give credit to Ryan for putting his bold proposal out on the table. Of course, the Democratic pundits are having a field day, calling elements of Ryan’s proposal “bad ideas” that benefit the rich at the expense of the poor. That may be the case, and that portion of the debate needs to continue. But that debate is carried out on an uneven playing field until Democrats present a comprehensive proposal, the elements of which Republicans can choose to label as “bad ideas.”

The good news, as I understand it, is that such a comprehensive Democratic plan for dealing with the big ticket budget items is forthcoming. After that proposal is out on the table, it will be possible to have a fair debate as to the relative merits, or demerits, of proposals from both sides of the aisle, hopefully leading to the emergence of further common ground beyond agreeing that we have a long-term budget problem.

I will dare to generalize these reflections on the current budget debate. Whatever the issue at hand, it is all too easy to criticize a position taken by someone else, without allowing for reciprocal criticism of your position, simply because you haven’t stated a position that can be criticized and discussed.

If the “Ideals for Conversation” that I have proposed elsewhere on this web site have any validity, then the quest for substantive common ground will go nowhere unless those who disagree first listen to and seek to understand adequately the contrary positions of others. This obviously requires that the various contrary positions be put on table. Only then can those in conversation begin to uncover where they agree and where they disagree, and go on from there, depending on the purpose of the conversation.