Grassroots Groups Offer Plan For $1 Trillion In Deficit Reduction

09/15/2011 12:32 pm ET | Updated Nov 15, 2011

WASHINGTON -- Two grassroots political organizations -- one from the right, one from the left -- are offering Capitol Hill an entirely different way of looking at deficit reduction.

Rather than seeing it in partisan terms, or simply as a zero-sum choice between raising taxes and slashing social programs, the two groups on Thursday released a list of $1 trillion in proposed cuts targeting wasteful spending, ineffective programs and massive giveaways to special interests.

The two organizations -- the public-interest group U.S. PIRG and the anti-tax National Taxpayers Union -- have agreed on more than 50 specific recommendations for the congressional super committee on deficit reduction. Taking those recommendations would get the committee 80 percent of the way to its target of reducing the federal deficit by $1.3 trillion over the next 10 years.

Given the two groups' constituencies, raising taxes and breaking social contracts were both off the table. Instead, they found agreement on what they describe as $215 billion in savings from ending wasteful subsidies, $429 billion from addressing outdated or ineffective military programs, $232 billion from improving program execution and government operations and $132 billion from reforms to entitlement programs.

Among the big-ticket items on their hit list are massive subsidies to agriculture, a program that underwrites international marketing for major U.S. corporations, high payments to certain classes of Medicare providers and weapons programs such as the F-35 joint strike fighters.

"What we're trying to demonstrate is that there is fair amount of policy agreement between left and right," said Andrew Moylan, NTU's vice president for public affairs.

So why were these groups able to find common ground in a way that politicians in Washington have not?

"We don't have to get elected. I think that's really the big difference here," Moylan said. "There are a lot of folks who are much more worried about their election prospects than they are about fixing the federal budget. It's sort of the age-old story in Washington, that politics tend to complicate the policy."

The joint report gores some of Capitol Hill's most active and well-financed oxen, including military contractors, agribusiness, oil and gas companies, pharmaceutical conglomerates and other multinational companies.

"Most of this stuff goes after the heart of what's been lobbied for over the last 30 years," said Gary Kalman, U.S. PIRG's federal legislative office director. For members of Congress, "these are the guys who fill their coffers."

"It's a classic case of concentrated benefits and diffused costs," said Moylan. "The folks who benefit from this are going to fight to the death." Although corporate tax breaks were off limits for NTU, subsidies, overpayments and wasteful contracts were fair game. "Any time we try to tackle some of these wasteful projects, we have these intense lobbying campaigns that crop up all around them," Moylan said.

Kalman said that the Supreme Court decisions that struck down historical limits on campaign spending will only increase the pressure on those seeking reelection to be responsive to corporate, rather than public, interests.

"We are about to see companies, corporations, industries, special interests, pile money into elections like I think we've not seen before," he said. And with the electorate as angry as it is over Congressional dysfunction, he said, "if you are in an incumbent, you have to be nervous no matter which side of the aisle you're on."

Budget cuts that look like low-hanging fruit from outside Washington seem "exactly the opposite" to members of Congress seeking reelection, Kalman said. "This is the hardest stuff to cut," he said. "It's way easier to cut Medicaid than it is to cut agricultural subsidies."

Kalman said he is hopeful that the super committee will take a different perspective. "There's going to be a spotlight focused on these guys," he said. "They're going to feel a lot of pressure to be the adults in the room."

And to that end, the joint report offers something else in addition to ideas -- something possibly even more useful. "These are grassroots organizations with hundreds of thousands of members," Kalman said. "And therefore you have political cover from across the political spectrum."


Dan Froomkin is senior Washington correspondent for The Huffington Post. You can send him an email, bookmark his page; subscribe to his RSS feed, follow him on Twitter, friend him on Facebook, and/or become a fan and get email alerts when he writes.