Judd Gregg, Evan Bayh urge N.H. voters to make debt, deficit a priority in primary

Last modified: 4/3/2015 4:31:19 PM
Judd Gregg, a former U.S. senator and New Hampshire governor, and Evan Bayh, a former U.S. senator and Indiana governor, delivered a bipartisan message to the state’s voters yesterday:

Make the country’s deficit and debt a priority in our first-in-nation presidential primary.

Gregg, both at the UNH law school’s Rudman Center and a subsequent interview with the Monitor, defined the goals of the First Budget initiative as a three-step process. First, ask presidential candidates if they considered the debt and deficit to be a major problem. Second, ask them to include serious measures to deal with both in their first budget proposal. And finally, ask them to commit to that budget being bipartisan.

“It can’t be overestimated how important this issue is,” Gregg, a Republican, said at the Rudman Center.

Bayh, a Democrat, told the audience of about 90 that they – and others in the state – “are the most important people in America” because of their opportunity to press candidates.

The challenges posed by a growing debt and deficit were outlined by both men. The national debt has doubled over the last six years, Gregg said, and will triple by the early 2020s. The debt-to-GDP ratio is 74 percent, higher than at any point since World War II. Deficits, while reduced over the last couple of years, will soon increase, with interest payments alone eclipsing all discretionary spending, Bayh said.

And if other nations holding our debt start to doubt our ability to pay it off, Gregg said, “massive economic disruption” would be created.

The good news, he said, is that potential solutions – such as the Simpson-Bowles proposal – that both tackle entitlement spending and tax reform are on the table.

“This problem is solvable,” Gregg said. “Very, very solvable.”

Bayh echoed that sentiment. “If we are willing to assess the truth and act upon the truth, we’ve got every reason to be optimistic about the future of our country.”

Fixing the debt

The two former senators shared an easy camaraderie, using certain quips at both their Rudman Center appearance and meeting with Monitor staff.

“We’re not asking for specifics as to what (candidates) would do,” Gregg said, “because – what’s the term you use?”

“You can’t expect them to drink hemlock,” Bayh replied.

“But we are asking them to acknowledge it as one of their top domestic, if not their top domestic priority,” Gregg finished.

The two weren’t afraid to delve into the nitty-gritty of policy on their own, though. Gregg, for instance, delved into the challenges posed by continually increasing health care spending.

Pointing to Medicare as one of the primary drivers of the nation’s debt problem, he referenced work by Dartmouth researchers showing that better health outcomes could be accomplished while also spending less money. The key, Gregg said, is to make health care providers responsible for good health outcomes, rather than simply reimbursing them for a procedure or treatment.

For his part, Bayh talked about the defense budget, and about caps placed on it as part of the budget “sequester,” the automatic, across-the-board spending cuts agreed to by Congress in 2011.

“It remains a dangerous world, unfortunately,” he said, “and we are still looked at to take the lead.”

But both men pointed out that discretionary spending, of which defense is a part, is not a prime driver of the country’s debt. Indeed, Bayh said, the fastest-growing part of the Pentagon’s budget is health care.

Crossing party lines

At the Rudman Center, the former senators were asked about the role of money in politics. Both bemoaned its effects, particularly in making lawmakers less willing to cross party lines and compromise.

But Gregg said he didn’t know what could be done about it. The Supreme Court was right in the Citizens United case, he said, deciding that money equaled speech. As for reforming the situation, he said, “I have not seen a proposal that makes sense.”

Bayh, on the other hand, pointed to the presidential election as potentially important. Presidents appoint Supreme Court justices after all, he said, and the high court has been known to change its mind.

And, he said, floods of advertising could eventually lose their power. “At some point you reach the law of diminishing returns,” he said.

Asked a similar question about campaign finance reform at the Monitor, Gregg replied simply: “It’s a straw dog.”

“That’s not what’s failing our system,” he said. “Our system is failing because people in Washington don’t want to step up to the tough issues and make the tough calls and show leadership.”

The First Budget initiative is a joint project of the Concord Coalition and Fix the Debt, both groups focused on balancing the nation’s books. The Concord Coalition’s executive director, Robert Bixby, was on hand to moderate.

The event was also sponsored by the Business and Industry Associaion, the Peter G. Peterson Foundation and Fiduciary Trust.

(Clay Wirestone can be reached at 369-3305, cwirestone@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @ClayWires.)

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