Aptly named, last week’s “Common Ground” Summit—hosted by the Campaign to Fix the Debt—gathered representatives from 88 different organizations to seek consensus about how to approach the fast-growing problem of America’s mammoth national debt. The Campaign was launched last July with a mission of honest dialogue, bipartisan consensus and a comprehensive, principled plan for reform. The first two goals—not the third—were the primary focus of this event.

Campaign to fix the debt

Image via www.fixthedebt.org

The ideological and organizational diversity of the summit’s participants was remarkable: attendees included the Brookings Institution, AEI, Microsoft, AARP, the NAACP, Sojourners and the National Small Businesses Association, to name just a few. As a relative newcomer to Washington, the presence of this wide array of political views made me hopeful, as it suggests there may finally be bipartisan recognition and concern for an issue swept under the rug for far too long.

Small groups considered three topics: ramifications of addressing versus not addressing the debt, obstacles inhibiting us from reaching consensus, and principles that should guide the development of a long-term debt reduction plan. During each discussion, groups electronically submitted their conclusions so key points could be presented to the whole room.

The result was partially encouraging. On the one hand, we established common ground around some principles. Participants overwhelmingly affirmed the need to urgently address the debt, not only for fiscal and budgetary sustainability, but also to re-establish confidence in the U.S. economy, to protect the ability to invest in our future, and to restore confidence in government’s ability to get things done. Many in the room expressed concern for how debt reduction may hurt vulnerable populations. Others bemoaned the absence of strong leadership essential for national sacrifice, and a deep lack of public awareness about this critically important issue. Without real breakthroughs on these fronts, it is difficult to foresee change.

Abstractly, the room agreed that any approach will require shared sacrifice. As the Simpson-Bowles report argues, we must put everything on the table: both revenues and spending. Substantial spending cuts are necessary, but must be administered in a way that protects long-term investments, promotes growth (education, infrastructure, etc.), minimizes the effect on vulnerable populations and avoids undermining the economic recovery. As Alice Rivlin of the Brookings Institution argued in her opening comments, we are not each going to get everything we like, but the problem must be solved. Disagreement cannot mean gridlock.

In the grand scheme of things, this conversation was just a small start. It mostly dealt with vague concepts and principles, which are typically easier to agree upon than concrete matters of policy. But by starting from principles, contentious policy-making may become more productive.

Ironically, before the event even began, it was disrupted by shouting protesters. I think if they had only sat down and listened to the content of the discussions, they would have been hard-pressed to find anything protest-worthy about the event. Different people, from very different backgrounds, representing entirely different interests sat down civilly at tables together, and found limited but real common ground.

If only members of Congress could do the same.