How to have that ‘adult conversation’ on taxes

    The Obama tax deal has become law, but not without more than a little vitriolic partisanship. And there is every indication that an even nastier nasty war of words is brewing come the new year and the new Congress.

    And all the while, we’ll hear them claiming they know “what the American people want.”

    This raises at least two questions: What do the American people want in terms of substance? And, what do they want in terms of process?

    I think Congress is right about one answer: Many members of Congress have been saying “it’s time for an adult conversation” about the federal budget and the federal deficit.

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    If Congress knows we want an adult conversation, why don’t the members have one? Perhaps they don’t know how to do this in public. Perhaps they’ve forgotten what that looks like! If so, they might look to the public – here in Philadelphia and across the nation – as a role model for how to have an “adult conversation, at least about the deficit and the budget.

    A diverse conversation

    This summer more than 3,500 Americans in 19 cities took part in a national discussion about the national debt. The event was called “AmericaSpeaks: Our Budget, Our Economy.’ Close to 500 of our neighbors in the Greater Delaware Valley took part.  Both here and across the nation, we were diverse in race and ethnicity, in age and in gender.  And we represented a broad range of the political spectrum – from Tea Partiers to centrists to progressives.

     We spent most of a beautiful Saturday learning more about the federal budget, and discussed a broad set of options to address the deficit. We didn’t shy away from hard topics or from hard choices – about health care and national defense, about Social Security, about simplifying the tax code, about raising taxes and more.

    If our elected officials had taken the time to be at any of the 19 sites nationwide, they would have learned more than a few things – about how Americans want to handle the deficit, about how to work across differences to address difficult issues, and about what we want from them.

    They would have learned that, given accurate facts and talk, and time to talk with one another, we can reach common ground that includes difficult tradeoffs for the good the country.

    Take taxes. Republicans in Congress and President Obama reached their deal a little while ago, and they did agree on some tradeoffs.

    Working through the same set of issues, the people taking part in the America Speaks forums reached a different set of tradeoffs. This sample of Americans – representing the full range of political positions from Tea Party to – reached broad agreement that taxes should be raised, not cut, on those in the top two tax brackets.

    Agreement to tighten Pentagon’s belt

    We also worked through concerns over national defense and defense spending to recommend a significant reduction in defense spending – so long as it didn’t hurt our troops on the ground.

    We agreed to a rather significant increase in the cap on the Social Security payroll tax to cover 90 percent of wages, but not raising the retirement age for receiving Social Security benefits. (For a full report on the results of this national town hall meeting: “

    In terms of process, members of Congress would have learned – contrary to the example of TV shoutfests staged in Washington – that Americans are ready, willing and able to engage each other in productive, passionate and civil discourse across differences. There was plenty of disagreement in the small working groups at the town meeting, but we treated those disagreements with respect, never misinterpreting disagreement over policy as a moral indictment of the person making the statement. Rather, we understood that we all want the same thing: a strong future for our nation.

     The report of the President’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform was released last week. The summer forums were held to gather input to offer to that commission. The Commission was not able to muster the supermajority required by the President’s Executive Order, but 11 of 18 did endorse it. That’s a pretty good start.

     When you add that to the work of several thousand American’s this summer, Congress should get a clear message: We know this is not easy, but we are ready to engage in the deliberations.

    Seeking a genuine conversation

     Congress has started to have a conversation about the taxes, debt and entitlements. And members are at least talking about some genuine trade-offs, not the kind of kick-the-can-down-the-road, phony compromises we’ve seen too much of.

    Congress still has lots of work to do, for example, to decide whether and how make cuts to offset the loss of revenue from the tax cuts. And while we can hope that the conversation will improve in quality, I fear this is only prelude to some very nasty partisan fighting.

     Yet, it doesn’t have to come to that. It’s time for Congress to engage the American public and follow our example to find common ground across differences to keep us moving forward. We, the People are up to the task. I hope Congress gives us the opportunity.

    Harris Sokoloff is director of the Penn Project for Civic Engagement at the University of Pennsylvania. He is also director of the Center for School Study Councils at the Graduate School of Education.  He can be contacted at

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