Yorkers work with Rep. Perry for an inside look at the national budget
Ed Weed's thumb and forefinger massage the bridge of his nose.
He studies the faces of the four men at his table.
They lean in, awaiting his answer.
"I think we should take a vote."
Weed, along with 39 fellow York County residents, gathered five to a table inside Yorkview Hall at York College's Willman Business Center for Wednesday's “Principles and Priorities: An Interactive Budget Workshop," a mock-deficit fixing challenge sponsored by The Concord Coalition and U.S. Rep. Scott Perry, R-York County.
"One of the most important things about an exercise like this is making the process relatable," Concord Coalition director of government relations Phil LaRue said.
The Concord Coalition is a national, nonpartisan, grass-roots organization advocating responsible fiscal policy.
"The concept of automatic spending is a lot less difficult to understand if you think about it like an automatic deduction on your credit card every month," he said. "What we look for are real-life examples of similar processes that everyone goes through to make this realer for people."
Workshop: LaRue said the amazing thing about the exercise his organization sponsors is that every group tends to reduce the deficit. No matter what their political affiliations are, no matter what they come to the table believing, they leave having reduced the deficit because they realize that these are tough choices.
He said most groups leave the table feeling they have made the future — hypothetically, of course — better for their kids.
"They end up seeing the bigger picture, I think,” he said.
The issue Weed's table was stuck on is one often talked about in political spheres — taxes. Specifically, taxes on investments.
Spending versus cuts: The proposal was whether to eliminate all taxes on capital gains and dividends, which are currently at a rate of 15 percent, which is lower than the rate on regular income tax, Weed said. If the rate were cut to zero, it might be more effective for the economy and people could use their own capital gains resources and deploy it however they want.
"The problem is, that is apparently a big source of revenue for the government. If nobody has to pay those taxes, it would increase the deficit by $1.3 trillion over 10 years," Weed said. "We discussed it, took a vote on this and decided we cannot support eliminating that tax today, because the projection for the deficit is so great and our debt is so high and getting higher, at this point in time we can’t take that action to make the problem worse."
"We’re given tough choices here. Neither of the choices are really good, but we’re not allowed to make any amendments. We either take it or we dump it. There is no middle ground," Weed's tablemate John Freet said.
Policy: Perry addressed the crowd of mock-budget committee members at York College before and after the workshop. He spent time during the exercise working his way table to table, listening — and at times chiming in when asked — to the tough questions being debated.
"I’ve heard some generational divides of policy, young and old, that disagree with entitlement or defense versus college spending. I’ve heard that, ‘I don’t like the choices here,’” he said. All of them are things he hears, and says, in the course of his daily operations in Washington, D.C.
"I think they really are gaining a perspective of how difficult it is. They also don’t like the fact, I’ve heard, ‘We don’t like being confined to this model,’ and ‘Why can’t we do this and that,’ and I say, ‘Well, you are the United States Congress. You can do anything you want to, but you’ve got to understand there are a lot of people who are wed to the institution and process, as much if not more than the solution or the problem," Perry said.
In Congress, members don't always like their choices either. Perry said he and fellow representatives get an up or down vote, yes or no, on issues they sometimes like and others they sometimes do not like.
“You’ve got to choose, is it better than it is worse? And I think they are getting a flavor of that," he said.
Results: In the end, most tables did reduce the deficit, some by $3.3 trillion, $4.3 trillion or as much as $5 trillion. One table added $400 billion to the deficit but stood by their expenditures.
LaRue, who has conducted 12 such workshops across the country, said Wednesday's results were on par with the dozen that preceded them.
Often, the cuts made are alike table-to-table based on the region of the country he is in.
For example: NASA funding. In Utah, across the board everybody said to cut it. In Florida, they all voted to continue funding the space program.
Or Amtrak. Everywhere in the country, people seem to want to get rid of Amtrak, he said. But when LaRue goes to New York or to New Jersey, the votes are almost unanimous to keep the trains running.
Cognitive dissonance is another issue the workshop tackles, he said. Many come to their table convinced that health care or defense spending or entitlements are the root cause of all debt. In the forum leading up to the exercise, these views are uncompromising, despite the nonpartisan slideshow offering raw data on the fiscal breakdown of the national budget.
Liberals think he is conservative; conservatives think he is a liberal. But the math is the great equalizer, he said.
Impact: "Oftentimes yes, or they realize the importance of compromise. It is easy to stand in a town square and tell everybody what I believe, but when I have to make a decision in a collective body with people who disagree with me, that is going to be harder," LaRue said. "So I think at a minimum, people realize compromise is important and they do it. But you will see sometimes where they actually kind of evolve in their opinions; where they say, ‘Wait a minute. I didn’t realize Social Security was this underfunded.'"
Perry said the show of community participation was great to see. He and his staff will pore over the results the eight tables of five were able to come up with to see if there are any viable ideas he can take back to Washington. More importantly, he said, the constituents were given real insight into the inner workings of fiscal governance.
"I am really heartened by how many people have come to be involved in this," Perry said. "A nice, warm summer evening and people made the conscious choice to come and sit in this room and go over this intractable problem. It’s fascinating."
The challenge: Think you can make the right cuts or expenditures to reduce the nation's debt? Try your hand here: www.concordcoalition.org/act/tools/principles-priorities, and let us know how you did on Facebook.