Lilly: Debt Solution Should Include People’s Voice

Posted July 28, 2011 at 5:59pm

There are a number of things that are deeply unsettling about the debt ceiling deliberations.

One is the apparent willingness of Congress to deny the Treasury the ability to meet the nation’s legal obligations.

Also troubling is the fact that a handful of people are rewriting long-standing federal programs that are important to tens of millions of Americans — and they are doing so largely in secret and completely outside the normal legislative process.

When the deal is final, we will receive little real notice as to what those changes are or how they will affect people’s lives before they will be put before both bodies of Congress in a must-pass vote.

Let’s look at one example: Medicaid. Federal support for Medicaid has been at the epicenter of these negotiations. While it is often thought of as a program targeted to America’s lower class, a paper published by the Center for American Progress a few weeks ago documented that the program touches the lives of a very wide spectrum of people, including a huge share of the middle class.

Whether it is an elderly couple who have exhausted their life savings on nursing home expenses and will be released to the care of their children if Medicaid does not step in or the young couple who give birth to a severely disabled child who will need lifelong assisted living, a huge portion of Americans live in families that have been touched by Medicaid.

There is no question that we must cut spending and reduce deficits. But which of the above listed benefits would the American people choose to cut, and would they prefer those cuts to others that might be made or to higher taxes?

The answer requires a dialogue with the American people that has not taken place. Certainly, huge numbers of people who might need such benefits in the future are unaware of the increased risk about to be placed on their shoulders.

In the 222 years since the first Congress met, we have developed elaborate systems that not only permit citizens to petition Congress on legislative matters, but ensure a legislative process that is robust in its opportunity for citizen interaction.

Proposals are published in the Congressional Record. They are referred to committee and notice must be given when hearings are scheduled. Witnesses representing opposing viewpoints are called and the public is given the right to attend. Votes are taken in committee, and opponents have time to publish their arguments. Consideration in the full House or Senate can take days, and when it is complete, the whole exercise must be repeated in the other body.

That is the process required to merely create a national monument or alter the jurisdiction of a minor agency. Compare that with the paper being secretly passed between the White House and a handful of legislative leaders aimed at rewriting the eligibility requirements, service levels and funding streams of Medicaid and other programs — and there will never be a separate vote on any of these changes.

The choices being made on behalf of the American people might be quite different from the choices they themselves might make — and their opportunity to petition, protest or approve will be virtually nonexistent.

President William McKinley once said of his country, “Here, the people rule and their will is the supreme law.” Whatever is packaged into this debt agreement will not honor that vision and, for that reason, may very likely not stand the test of time.  

Scott Lilly is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a former staff director of the House Appropriations Committee.