Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

October 6, 2012

‘Budget wonk’ will be analyzing debate closely

CNHI News Service

DANVILLE — Maya MacGuineas is “a diehard political independent” and has been called an “anti-deficit warrior” by the Wall Street Journal.

She’s planning to pay close attention to Thursday night’s vice presidential debate between Republican Paul Ryan and Democratic incumbent Joe Biden from the campus of Centre College in little Danville.

 “I’ll watch it, and I’ll tape it, and then I’ll watch it again,” she said.

The self-proclaimed “budget wonk” is a regular on national news programs and often testifies before Congress on budget matters. She’s worked on Wall Street and for the Brookings Institute and her dad criticizes every speech she makes calling for changes to Social Security.

She’s got news for those on the left and on the right.

The country faces a dangerous fiscal cliff after the election and, regardless of who wins, the problem is the same: the need to cut $4 trillion from the national debt and the only way to do it is to look at every part of the budget and use every means available.

“It’s implausible you could do this all through spending cuts or all through revenue increases, and it’s clearly impossible unless you do it in a way that’s bi-partisan,” MacGuineas said during a phone interview with CNHI on Friday.

MacGuineas is president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget and Director of the Fiscal Policy Program at the New America Foundation, a non-partisan think tank. Her articles have appeared in the Washington Post, The New York Times, and the Financial Times. She has worked with members of Congress as groups such as the Gang of Six and others have tried, so far without success, to build a coalition of compromise to deal with the national debt.

She hosts weekly dinners for members of Congress who get together outside the media glare and the partisan heat on the hill for serious discussions on the budget and health care.

MacGuineas described the political landscape and its impact on crucial fiscal challenges as “the most complicated game of three-dimensional chess I’ve ever watched.”

Yet she thinks there’s opportunity. At those weekly dinners, “You don’t see any of the partisanship you see splashed across the front page. You see men and women who are honestly trying to figure out how we’re going to fix these problems.”

She was a bit surprised Mitt Romney and Barack Obama responded to questions about the debt during their debate last week without political demagoguery and expects a “budget nail-biter” in this week’s vice presidential debate at Centre College in Danville.

“I think the debate showed two men who understood this is a serious problem,” MacGuineas said. “While they didn’t get into the straight talk we really need, they also refrained from the typical political demagoguery. As if they’re both kind of leaving the door open so that no matter who has to finally lead is able to say: Listen we have to have a real conversation about cutting spending, cutting defense, entitlement reform and taxes.”

Straight talk means saying which tax breaks must go, talking about raising retirement ages for Social Security, means testing benefits for the more affluent, “and all the things politicians usually run screaming from.” Both presidential candidates should offer specifics.

“If you think about a company that is in trouble, the board of directors would never hire a CEO without knowing what their turnaround plan is,” MacGuineas said.

She believes the public is ready for straight talk.

 “I can just imagine people nodding their heads in agreement if someone came out on that debate stage and said ‘Llisten, it’s time we really talk about what it’s going to take to fix the debt.’”

With Republican Paul Ryan as Romney’s vice presidential running mate, there’s little chance the budget deficit and debt won’t be part of Thursday’s debate. MacGuineas said Ryan should be credited for offering serious proposals.

“I think the arithmetic of Ryan’s proposal does add up – with some fill-in-the-blanks. But I don’t think the politics adds up.”

MacGuineas said Ryan’s budget proposals should be viewed as “an opening bid from the right and someone from the left should make a corresponding opening bid. But it’s not going to be the final deal.”

She’s confident Biden will offer administration ideas about how to deal with the fiscal crisis. She hopes the two sides won’t engage in promise the problem can be solved without middle class pain.

MacGuineas favors a balanced approach that creates more revenue – but through tax reform rather than by raising tax rates – and by spending cuts, including in defense. The other key is entitlement reform, she said.

She sees pathways to compromise that protect pro-growth values of the right and the desire to protect the poor by the left. And she says there are senators who are talking seriously about how to do it, even before the election.

MacGuineas agrees with Obama that Social Security can be strengthened with some reasonable changes: raising the income cap on which payroll taxes are collected; capping benefits to those who don’t need them as much; and raising the retirement age modestly. But she also says the public must acknowledge Social Security is a transfer program and not an insurance program. Most beneficiaries draw out far more than they paid in.

Doing nothing is not an option, MacGuineas said. “Every year we wait, the more expensive it comes.”

There’s time to address the budget problems, but it requires leadership and compromise and an understanding by the public that everyone must participate.

RONNIE ELLIS writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at rellis@cnhi.com. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.