Yesterday evening I attended an event sponsored by my U.S. Representative, Jim Moran (D-VA). I accepted an invitation I received from his email list to a community forum called "Principles & Priorities: How would you balance the budget?"
I'm no dummy and I was expecting political theater, but I thought at least the theater would be staged by Representative Moran, a centrist Democrat who generally votes the party line, though he sometimes surprises and delights like his 2002 vote against the Iraq war resolution.
How wrong I was. Representative Moran didn't even show up until it was halfway over to deliver his prepared remarks.
The meeting was called to order and, it turns out, convened by the Concord Coalition, the right-wing group dedicated to deficit-cutting and fiscal responsibility. We received a fiscal briefing complete with PowerPoint pie charts that showed how the "entitlements crisis" is eating our budget. Then we were broken into small groups to discuss lists of proposed solutions.
"It's like Congress," the moderator informed us. "You can't have everything and you need to make choices." Each choice came with an estimated price tag: $3 billion savings over ten years by eliminating the one dollar bill; $5 billion over ten years in funding cuts for the arts and humanities; $53 billion in new spending for high speed rail. Which would you choose?
I'm not challenging the math. The choices weren't unreasonable, and the moderator readily admitted that every idea was not on the list. Most impressive, the list included defense cuts and revenue increases.
Still the right-wing tilt was unmistakable. In a courteous, professorial, apparently neutral way, we were shown how Social Security is unaffordable, and asked whether we prefer to raise the retirement age or convert Medicare into a voucher program.
Even the revenue options were conservatives in disguise. Should we eliminate the home mortgage deduction or tax the employer contribution to health care benefits? Not to be seen were estate taxes, a financial transaction tax, or progressive taxation other than ending George Bush's "temporary" tax cuts.
Military cuts included canceling a few billion dollars' worth of new weapon systems. Our hundreds of overseas bases and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq went unmentioned.
My point here is not to criticize the range or the particulars of the options -- some of them were quite appealing (increasing the payroll cap for Social Security contributions, $457 billion over ten years) -- but the exaggerated breadth of the debt crisis. Social Security has its own funding stream and its own fiscal logic. Medicare and Medicaid are symptoms of our health care problems and require health care solutions, not offsets in AMTRAK subsidies. The big three entitlement programs require separate attention and do not belong in our urgent negotiations over the debt ceiling.
Here's the problem. This forum was convened by Representative Moran. He gave Concord his mailing list, and lent his name and his prestige to this occasion. Visiting with the Concord staffers afterwards, I learned that they have presented such events with 25 other U.S. Representatives so far. "Always by invitation," he pointed out.
I can imagine it. Concord offers to host and staff a forum on the budget. Representatives can engage their constituents, discuss the budget, and posture on fiscal responsibility all at the same time. I understand the appeal.
But our elected officials shouldn't take the bait. This was a con. The Concord Coalition spent two hours kindly and gently indoctrinating us in a right-wing world-view. Concord is an honest advocacy group and entitled to advocacy towards its ends. But our elected officials should not dress it up in government clothes and present it to constituents as a town hall forum. It's a service to neither their constituencies nor the spirit of the town hall for which it's named.
I vote no.