Nod your head if this sounds familiar: “I keep talking to other colleagues who have confidence that someone else is working things out. But I keep looking around thinking, ‘If we’re not doing it, then who is?’”
The sentiment is such a common one in organizations that it could have been uttered by just about any nervous middle manager worried about a pressing project deadline. But in this case—frighteningly—those were the words of Sen. Chris Coons, the freshman Democrat from Delaware and a member of the budget committee.
He was speaking about raising the debt ceiling, the legal limit on how much the U.S. can borrow that, if not raised by August 2nd, could mean the U.S. will default on its debt and send the global economy into financial catastrophe. Politicians on both sides are saying they won’t vote to raise the limit without significant cuts to the nation’s deficit.
Anyone who’s ever worked on a difficult and critical project knows what can all too easily happen: Everyone thinks someone else is on it, and everyone unintentionally puts it on the back burner behind lowlier priorities that are simpler to accomplish. An inverse law of daunting deadlines seems to apply: The more critical the project, the more likely it is that everyone thinks someone else will solve it. The bigger the problem, ironically, the less likely it is to inspire a sense of ownership among all of the people who can correct it.
Granted, there are people working on the problem, of course. The White House-led talks run by Vice President Joe Biden and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor are said to be constructive and civil; they’re finding areas of agreement even if big-ticket items such as squeezing savings from Medicare have not yet been truly wrestled with. And even if their efforts have stalled, other lawmakers have banded together to try to address the deficit problem.
But the problem—surely the highest-stakes battle to face the current Congress—often feels like it’s flying under the radar rather than being the only thing anyone in Washington is working on or talking about. Speaker of the House John Boehner and Republican leaders, as well as Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, are taking care to assure everyone that the debt ceiling will be raised, but with the budget committee chairman now saying that a $2 trillion deal isn’t enough and with a recess for lawmakers on the horizon, one has to wonder just how it will happen.
There are many reasons the most pressing short-term issue in Washington may not feel, at least to an outsider, like it’s front and center enough. Procrastination likely plays a role. So does a lack of a sense of urgency and, in the case of the debt ceiling, plenty of political posturing. But one of the biggest causes of the familiar problem Coons alludes to is the absence of a sense of ownership. No one in Congress—nor, it appears, President Obama—wants to be labeled as the one who couldn’t make a deal work, or have the weight of global financial calamity resting on his or her shoulders. But for a problem of this magnitude not to slip, everyone from the president on down to the most junior member of the budget committee must feel they are part of the solution.
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