What If Congress Went Into a Conclave?
Imagine. The C-SPAN cameras have been switched off for the first time since 1979, and the House gallery has been cleared of both guests and media. Inside the warm and crowded chamber, 535 members of Congress and the president of the United States are reciting their oath of office and swearing a vow of secrecy.
Another crucial budget deadline looms. After a series of manufactured crises and public failures to bring our country’s finances into order over the past three years, these cardinals of our government agree not to emerge or be heard from publicly again until they strike a deal.
Portraits of the great lawmakers of history surround the room, from George Mason to George Washington. Etched in the marble, a quote from Daniel Webster: "Let us … see whether we also, in our day and generation, may not perform something worthy to be remembered."
In the well, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan takes hold of a microphone. He calls the meeting to order and clears his throat.
"The American people deserve real solutions and honest leadership," he explains.
In presenting his budget resolution, Path to Prosperity, Ryan calls for repealing the Affordable Care Act, a landmark achievement of the president that extended health insurance to 34 million Americans. At the same time, the plan refuses to ask any American, wealthy or not, to pay a dime more in taxes.
Now, it is Senate Budget Chair Patty Murray’s turn. "The American people are looking to their elected officials to end the constant artificial crises and political brinksmanship," she asserts.
She grips a copy of her own plan, Foundation for Growth, and makes the case for roughly $1 trillion in new tax increases, primarily on wealthier Americans. While the plan achieves $275 billion in health care savings, it refuses to ask any Americans to give up a dime in Medicare or Social Security benefits.
Both plans are dead on arrival. Those on the left know a solution is impossible without raising revenue. Those on the right know the same would be the case without significant changes to entitlements. Those in the middle know we must actually do both and that virtually everyone else actually knows this too.
Heads now turn to President Obama. Perhaps he can break the stalemate. He tells those assembled, "I do believe that we can achieve a more balanced approach that asks something from everybody: Smart spending cuts; entitlement reform; tax reform that makes the tax code more fair for families and businesses."
"But where’s your budget?" interrupts a congressman from South Carolina. Indeed, the president admits he is five weeks late on delivering a budget. So he reclaims his seat.
"And what about the drones?!" demands the junior senator from Kentucky, before his swift excommunication.
A vote is called on the dueling budget proposals, and to no one’s surprise, it is straight party line: 277 (R) -256 (D). Without a super-majority having been achieved, a House page is asked to enter the chamber and is told the news. She quickly exits and gives the signal.
Above the capitol, a puff of black smoke billows into the chilly air. A familiar moan of dissatisfaction hums over the growing crowd of Americans who have come from both coasts and both parties to assemble on the West Lawn in anticipation of an actual solution.
From an outpost across the street, FOX News’s Sean Hannity exclaims on air: "Barack Obama and his liberal allies want to continue to enlarge the role and the scope and the size of government. It gives them more power, and it gives them more control over your daily life."
To a separate yet simultaneous audience, MSNBC’s Ed Schultz shouts to his viewers: "And let’s be honest about what government jobs are. They are teachers. They are firefighters, police officers, first responders, public safety workers. Republicans, you know, they are OK with losing these kinds of jobs. They would rather protect the wealthy."
For once, the heat from the partisan flame throwing cannot be felt inside. Nor can the sound of ringing phones be heard from the House and Senate office buildings, where lobbyists now line the hallways for meetings with staff. Campaign contributors, party leaders, special interests, and activists of all stripes are making a lot of noise, but they are unsure exactly what to do.
Inside, the tension begins to ease. Personal conversations replace press conferences. Thoughtful exchanges replace Twitter hashtags. Building trust replaces raising funds.
Seizing this auspicious moment, an unknown freshman congressman takes the floor. He walks to the rostrum at the head of the room. "We’ve always known what had to be done," he says, as he begins to lay out a $2.4 trillion plan to replace the sequester by coupling meaningful tax and entitlement reform.
"We need more people to pay into a tax system that is more progressive. And we need to spend less money on a health care system that is charging higher prices for excessive care," he declares. "And above all, we need to realize that the greatest threat to our country is the status quo, not each other."
Silence. And then some instinctive shrieks, as members look over the details.
"Don’t cut the mortgage interest deduction!" cries one member. He replies, "Are we really threatening families by not giving a tax break on their second home worth a million bucks?"
"Don’t raise the Social Security eligibility age!" cries another. Again, in response, "Are we really threatening seniors by raising the retirement age two years over five decades, as life expectancy increases?"
Time goes on. Isolated from normal political pressures, leaders’ kneejerk reactions give way to reasonable conversation. Still, there are tough decisions and everyone finds something they dislike. But that is precisely why more members buy in to the process and, importantly, the policy.
In the packed chamber, members notice that there was no longer a clear aisle visible that usually divides both parties. Everyone was there, together. They begin to realize that in order to get a deal, they don’t have to abandon their principles if only they choose to leave aside their hardened dogma. And they don’t have to risk their election if only they choose to do their job.
Then came the 23rd roll call vote on the eighth day of Congressional Conclave.
Exhausted but invigorated, the members cast their secret ballots. A few minutes elapse before smoke appears over the capitol.
Hannity and Schultz can no longer be heard above the roar of the crowd. The lobbyists begin running for cover to their K Street offices, vowing to fight another day. Stock prices start to soar, as a jolt of confidence is sent through the markets.
A light turns on in the Speaker’s office, and the doors swing open. Onto the balcony emerge Boehner, then Reid, then Obama…
"Habemus Magna Consensio!"
We have a grand bargain.
And with a few exceptions, looking over the crowd of cheering Americans, those cardinals of government breathe a sigh of relief wondering why they never had the courage to this before.
Nick Troiano is co-founder and National Field Director for The Can Kicks Back, a non-partisan, Millennial-driven campaign to fix our national debt and reclaim our American Dream.