There has been much speculation about the “demise” of the Gang of Six — the only truly bipartisan effort to reduce our national debt sufficiently and keep us on a sustainable path — since Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) decided to take a break from the group’s discussions. But reports of the group’s death have been greatly exaggerated. The other five — Sens. Mark Warner (D-Va.), Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) — continue to meet, and Coburn has made it clear that he has not left the group but, rather, is on a “sabbatical.”
The gang continues to work together, because Americans desperately need them to. Policymakers in both parties recognize this and have continued to encourage the gang to push forward, recognizing that it offers the last, best hope for a comprehensive bipartisan deficit reduction agreement in this Congress. Last week, Crapo mentioned that a large number of the calls he receives every day are from people telling him “don’t quit, don’t quit, because we’re counting on you.”
To be sure, we are encouraged by the positive tone of the bipartisan negotiations being led by Vice President Biden. Those discussions have the potential to produce an agreement on a substantial down payment on deficit reduction. We expect that they will include a number of the recommendations of the president’s fiscal commission, which we chaired, and they can surely benefit from the work of the Gang of Six as well.
But even under the most optimistic scenario, it seems unlikely that those discussions will yield savings large enough to truly stabilize our debt, let alone make the structural reforms to our entitlement programs and tax code that we so desperately need. In short, the discussions could produce a significant step forward but will not be enough to get us to the promised land. As Chambliss has explained, that group is mostly focused on the debt-ceiling vote, while the gang has “always been more focused on the long-term issues, because [the Biden group is] not going to solve the $14 trillion debt.” Indeed, the senators have been meeting for months to develop legislation to implement and potentially improve upon our commission’s $4 trillion plan to bring the debt under control. Their discussions have been guided by the same spirit of compromise and shared sacrifice that led to the success of the commission.
We understand that what the Gang of Six is working on is obviously no one’s first choice. Both House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan and President Obama have presented plans — and those plans have certainly pushed the debate forward. But as the budget votes last week proved — producing a soapbox for heated rhetoric but no progress — those proposals are not going to cut it. Both plans have come under intense criticism from the opposing party, and it is clear that neither can earn the type of broad bipartisan support necessary to enact and sustain a credible fiscal plan.
Meanwhile, we simply cannot afford gridlock and delay as each party stubbornly holds out for its ideal solution.
The truth is, there is no perfect plan — we all know that. We also know that the only way this works is through a bipartisan effort where everyone prods their own sacred cows into the cattle chute, and everyone gives up something they like to protect the country they love.
The remaining members of the Gang of Six have said they will go forward with their proposal if there is support for it among their colleagues. Many rank-and-file senators have said they share the nation’s frustration with gridlock and expressed support in concept for a comprehensive plan. This is exactly why a bipartisan group of 64 senators wrote to President Obama urging action on a comprehensive deficit reduction plan, and it is why members of that group must now stand up and do what’s right. The time for action is now.
Members of both parties and both houses must publicly support the work of the Gang of Six. This is the time for heroes. The country is ready for leaders in Washington to put politics aside, pull together — not apart — put national interest ahead of political interests and put the next generation over the next election.
Pray for the Gang of Six.
The writers were co-chairs of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform.