11/18/2010 03:17 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

In The Public Interest : The Sounds of Silence

The press coverage of the Fiscal Commission's Co-Chairs' proposal has focused on the great gulf between the right and left. By all accounts, Americans are getting pounded with the message that they'll pay for the government's fiscal woes - whether by tax increases or cuts to their benefits. The silence, however, has been deafening when it comes to proposals where there is some agreement - such as those to make the government better stewards of tax dollars and those that go after special interests who have been gaming the system. These proposals that can and should contribute to deficit reduction have not made the headlines.

With the stream of proposals coming from organizations, lawmakers and the Commission itself, Congress will have to make a choice. They will either focus on making budget decisions that make sense to taxpayers. Or they will decide to dig in deeper and continue to feed the theatrics of threats and fear-mongering.

If they want to do the former, they could do something radical: start where we agree. This week, I attended a discussion on the national debt hosted by the Transpartisan Center with a panel that included Grover Norquist, President of Americans for Tax Reform, Dean Baker, Co-director, Center for Economic & Policy Research, Jane Hamsher, Founder, FireDogLake and Tim Carney, Sr. Political Columnist, Washington Examiner. The audience was equally diverse and what ensued was a civilized conversation about what the government needs to do to take better care of taxpayer dollars. One of my take-aways was that proposals with transpartisan support have a better chance of actually forcing the government's hand, regardless of the topic.

For example, last month U.S. PIRG joined forces with the conservative National Taxpayers Union to find specific examples where common ground can be found on deficit reduction, to the tune of $600 billion in spending cuts, by reducing giveaways to special interests in the budget.

While consensus across wide ideological lines seems rare, when the problems are so big and the solutions are so obvious, gridlock begins to crack.

For instance, who in either party would oppose ending multi-million dollar subsidies to industries that harm the public interest or do more harm than good? Like tax credits to highly profitable oil companies to comply with a government mandate to blend their product with ethanol.

And who wouldn't oppose subsidies to mature, profitable industries that don't need the financial incentive to run their businesses? Like big, multi-million dollar corporate "farms" that have benefited from Depression-era policies for decades?

Shouldn't all of our elected leaders support reforming the way government does business, so that it is more efficient and free of practices and policies that allow special interests to game the system? Like making sure that agencies buy only what they need and making contractors actually compete for government business.

Finally, why does any program continue to receive government funding when there is independent, credible, bipartisan agreement that it is wasteful? Like the out-dated, unneeded Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle.

It's hard to argue with serious efforts to promote fiscal responsibility that improve government accountability and get rid of what's not working. Of course there are those who say that eliminating waste is just an easy way out of the hard conversations. But if subsidizing programs that fund big agribusiness and spending billions on unneeded, unreliable weapon systems were easy, wouldn't it have been done by now?

The answer is: yes.

The problem is that powerful special interests have kept these programs in place by using their individual and collective power, money, and influence over lawmakers. And lawmakers have often scratched each other's backs when they needed votes for their programs.

So the question remains: Will Congress respond? Will the newcomers who ran on the banner of fiscal responsibility actually follow through on their promises? Or will they continue with the fear-inspiring rhetoric that leads only to policy paralysis.

Americans heard quite a bit about profligate federal spending in this election. Many candidates made taming the spending culture in Washington their lead campaign theme. Now in office, these lawmakers have a chance to match the rhetoric that brought them to office with actions that begin the process of responsible fiscal management.

We urge Congress, the new members as well as leadership, to start where the left and right can agree, where lobbyists for corporate special interests have gamed the system, where the American people hope and expect progress can be made by working together.

Government can work better and safeguard taxpayer dollars. There is common ground if our leaders are willing to look for it.