If President Barack Obama and Congress finally reach a budget deal that significantly reduces the federal deficit and invests in the future, it will be because voters and business leaders like Paul Stebbins are tired of gridlock and are demanding compromise. • Stebbins is executive chairman of the board of World Fuel Services, a Fortune 500 company based in Miami with nearly $39 billion in revenue last year. The company is involved in the marketing, sale and distribution of fuel products, and Stebbins became interested in the federal budget mess after Obama and congressional Republicans narrowly avoided a government shutdown in 2011. He stopped by the office the other day with the nonpartisan Fix the Debt, whose Florida steering committee includes former U.S. Rep. Jim Davis of Tampa. Instead of pitching a specific budget plan, the group wants to mobilize business leaders and voters from both parties to push the president and Congress to agree on a balanced long-term approach.
"Nobody gets a free pass here,'' Stebbins said. "We all own this. The question is, can we have an honest conversation.''
As dysfunctional as Washington appears, there might be an opening if voters keep up the pressure and don't allow the special interests on both sides to drown them out.
For the first time in years, everyone has put their opening bids on the table. The Republican-controlled House has approved a budget crafted by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., that reflects the most conservative approach: deep spending cuts, no new revenue, Medicare vouchers, Medicaid block grants and all of the rest. By one vote, the Democrat-controlled Senate approved a budget with significantly fewer spending cuts, nearly $1 trillion in new revenue and no serious entitlement reform.
Last week, Obama finally weighed in. The president's budget proposal lands somewhere between the House and Senate, recommending less spending than Senate Democrats but including new revenue rejected by House Republicans. Most significantly, Obama also takes a stab at modest Social Security reform and more aggressive Medicare spending reductions.
The president must have done something right. He was immediately criticized by Republicans for raising taxes and by Democrats for cutting growth in spending on entitlements. That's the sort of middle ground embraced by Stebbins and Fix the Debt, which was founded by Erskine Bowles, President Bill Clinton's former chief of staff, and former Republican U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson. Those are the Washington wise men who chaired a committee that recommended a balanced approach of spending cuts and new revenue that Obama abandoned and Congress would not touch.
"If we want to keep rebuilding our economy on a stronger, more stable foundation,'' Obama said in the Rose Garden, "then we've got to get smarter about our priorities as a nation.''
He's got that right.
Social Security and the two health care programs, Medicare and Medicaid, are the federal government's biggest expenses. Social Security is in better shape than Medicare, but the rising costs of both have to be slowed. Otherwise, this nation will not be able to invest in the future: younger Americans, education, technology and new infrastructure.
Just as Republicans cannot keep saying no to more revenue, Democrats cannot keep saying no to reasonable changes to Social Security and Medicare. Obama floated some modest proposals in a gamble to bring moderate Republicans to the table and demonstrate he is not hostage to the labor unions and other liberal interest groups.
On Social Security, for example, the president proposes changing the annual cost-of-living adjustment by using a different formula that some economists say is more accurate. I know how important that COLA is for seniors; my late mother would anxiously wait every year for the figure to be released and calculate what it would mean for her down to the penny. But that isn't the only change that likely will have to be made. Congress also needs to consider raising the cap on income that is affected by the payroll tax.
Don't get too hung up on the details of the various plans. None of them will become law as written, and there will be months of posturing before there are serious negotiations. But there is a ray of hope.
"I think there is reason for optimism,'' Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Indian Shores, the chairman of the defense appropriations subcommittee, said Friday. "There are still going to be a lot of bumps along the way.''
The Senate is days away from introducing bipartisan legislation on immigration reform. Last week, 16 Republican senators (but not Florida's Marco Rubio) voted with Democrats to clear the way for debate on gun control. If there can be movement on those issues, that could set the stage for a budget compromise.
For that to happen, the president will have to stay engaged and continue to demonstrate to conservatives he will not cave in to liberal interest groups. And business leaders like Paul Stebbins will have to keep up the pressure on Congress and remind voters why a balanced approach to a budget deal is the best approach.