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02.12 Will The View Be Clearer At The Summit?

Friday, February 12th, 2010 | Scott Bittle

You'll be able to watch the White House summit on health care reform live on both webcast and television, which may be an advance for government transparency. But will the bipartisan summit be an advance for the public in clarity on this tough issue?

Anticipation is certainly high for the summit. President Obama put the Democrats' proposals on the table earlier this week, and the Republicans are expected to arrive with their own plan. There's been a lot of argument, and fierce debate over whether the summit itself is a real opportunity or just political theatre.

One of the greatest challenges during the long debate over health care has been making the options understandable to the public. But in our view, all through this process there hasn't been enough effort by leaders to help people weigh alternatives and work through the tradeoffs inherent in any reform plan and that process of thinking about options is essential to real public engagement.

So with that in mind, we'd like to suggest a few useful tools as a viewer's guide to the summit. Our Citizen's Survival Kit on health care reform, prepared for the last election, sums up the key issues and lays out some of the basic choices. Essentially, the kit provides the big picture on an issue where it's really easy to get lost in the details.

To compare some of the current choices on the table now, have a look at the Kaiser Family Foundation's side-by-side summary of the proposals before Congress. It's just been updated to include President Obama's latest proposals.

Finally, it helps to have a glossary, and a sense of history, both in this case provided by the Prescriptions blog at The New York Times.

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02.11 Government Waste, and What's Really Being Wasted

Thursday, February 11th, 2010 | Scott Bittle

The American public says more than half of every federal tax dollar, 53 cents, is wasted, according to an ABC/Washington Post survey released today. But what that survey suggests to us is what's really being wasted isn't money; it's trust.

The ABC/Post survey has been asking this question for 25 years now, and the number has been as high as 56 cents and as low as 43 cents. Budget experts would say that while there certainly is waste in government, it's nowhere near that high.

Based on Public Agenda's research, when people say half of every tax dollar is wasted, they're not analyzing bloated defense purchasing or Medicare fraud (although those stories have an impact). They're expressing an overall frustration with government and based on the same ABC/Post survey, frustrations are running high. Two-thirds of those surveyed say they're "dissatisfied" or "angry" with the government. According to the Post:

The opening is clear: Public dissatisfaction with how Washington operates is at its highest level in Post-ABC polling in more than a decade -- since the months after the Republican-led government shutdown in 1996 -- and negative ratings of the two major parties hover near record highs.


There are two lessons here, one very specific, and the other more general.

The specific point is about how these levels of distrust shape the debate over the federal deficit and the national debt. There are solutions to the government's grim long-term fiscal problems; the Choosing the Nation's Fiscal Future report is full of them. Public Agenda's research has shown, however, that one of the biggest barriers to solving the budget problem is the public's lack of trust in leaders. People simply aren't confident that the government will use their money wisely. They're worried that if they agree to spending cuts or tax increases, the government won't put that money to good use.

More broadly, this shows the public's distaste for gridlock and hyper-partisanship in Washington. And it also shows the opportunity for a different approach: real public engagement that allows citizens' voice to be heard and their concerns to play a role in decision making. Public engagement, properly executed, can break through gridlock and allow decisions to be firmly grounded in the public's values and priorities.

Surveys like this send a clear message that politics as usual isn't working for the American public. If we're going to solve our budget problems or any of our other problems, for that matter we need to get that trust back, and that means getting the public back into the process.

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02.10 Fiscal Sanity: It's Been Done Before

Wednesday, February 10th, 2010 | Scott Bittle

Today's must-read budget story is in USA Today, which makes a point that often gets lost when we debate getting the federal budget under control: namely, that it's been done before, and not that long ago, either.

Balancing the budget in the late 1990s required sustained, bipartisan effort, and a combination of both spending controls and tax increases. But it also came at a political cost to a number of the politicians involved.

It's also worth remembering that those efforts in the Nineties to get rid of the year-to-year shortfall never translated into strategies to deal with the problems that are leading the federal budget into disaster in the long run: the rising health care costs and aging population that are going to send costs for Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security soaring, and the national debt along with it.

Right now the nation's finances are getting more attention than they have in a long time. But bipartisanship is in short supply, unless, as some argue, you count a bipartisan unwillingness to look at real solutions, particularly any solutions that might affect their own home states. Others argue that this is no time to worry about the budget at all, given the Great Recession and the risks of long-term unemployment.

That's why the Committee on the Fiscal Future suggested that real efforts to deal with our long-term budget problems start next year, to give the government time to deal with the economic crisis, and time to build consensus on solutions. History shows this can be done. And in this case, if we learn from history, maybe we can repeat it.

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02.05 No Teacher Left Behind?

Friday, February 5th, 2010 | Scott Bittle

The No Child Left Behind law, which for good or ill has been the center of American education policy over the past decade, is up for an overhaul. That's the word from the Obama administration, which says a central point will be changing how schools are rated, one of the most controversial parts of the law. Public Agenda's research shows that teachers are open to many different ways of assessing their work. More than half of teachers, 56 percent, said test scores were a "good' or "excellent" way of measuring teacher effectiveness, but other yardsticks were more popular, such as student engagement (92 percent), how much their own students learn compared with others (72 percent) and feedback from administrators (70 percent).

But there's may be an even more important hurdle here in improving schools, which is that significant numbers of teachers are frustrated with their work. Our Teaching For A Living study found four in 10 teachers "disheartened," struggling with their work environment and their ability to make a difference.

Frustration like that is bound to affect their success with students and their attitudes about reform. As the nation continues to try and make American schools all they should be, one of the greatest challenges is figuring out whether good leadership and different policies could re-energize these teachers, or whether they'd be better off doing something else.

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02.04 Up To The Limit?

Thursday, February 4th, 2010 | Scott Bittle

The House voted today to raise the national debt ceiling to $14.3 trillion, but by a pretty close vote on what's usually a routine matter. Opponents said the debt has to be brought under control; supporters pointed out that without an increase in the debt limit, the government would end up defaulting on its debt, throwing the world financial markets into chaos. Again.

So if we can't just stop borrowing cold turkey, how do we get a handle on this? The Committee on the Fiscal Future of the United States concluded you have to start soon, in next year's budget. (In other words, not the one President Obama just submitted for fiscal year 2011, but the budget after that). And the committee argued the goal should be to control the debt at 60 percent of GDP over the next decade that would keep it from getting too far out of hand while still allowing the government to fight the recession and do the other things it needs to do.

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02.01 The Budget As Board Game

Monday, February 1st, 2010 | Scott Bittle

In a torrent of news about President Obama's new budget proposal, two things really stand out to us and they're probably not the points upon which most of the coverage and commentary will focus.

One point comes from the Wall Street Journal's interactive graphic of the federal budget process, which is something to make you laugh or cry, as you prefer.

This eight-stage, 27-box graphic could be the basis of a board game for particularly wonky kids. But at a moment when everyone in Washington is combing through President Obama's $3.8 trillion budget proposal, with its record $1.6 trillion deficit, it's important to remember just how long and complicated this process is.

That doesn't help the public come to grips with this. Budgets are all about setting priorities, and while this budget proposal tells us what the Obama administration thinks the priorities should be, there's nothing in this long, convoluted process that helps the public sort through options and choices to figure out what their priorities are.

The second point that strikes us comes from the sheer volume of coverage, analyzing the budget proposal from so many angles that it's hard for anyone who's not immersed in the coverage to keep up. (If you want to make a start on it, we'd suggest this roundup of stories from almost every angle in the Washington Post's 44 blog, and of course the Choosing Our Fiscal Future news tracker). No matter what angle you're interested in, somebody's covered it.


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01.28 Live-Tweeting The State Of The Union

Thursday, January 28th, 2010 |

It was freezing as usual last night in Emporia, Kansas midway between Wichita and Kansas City, a great case study for the winters for which the Midwest is known. But heat was in evidence as students all over campus at Emporia State University logged on to Twitter to listen, comment and discuss the State of the Union address and the GOP response viewed from the prism of the federal budget deficit and national debt.

The live chat (click here to take a look at the students' comments), moderated by Public Agenda on behalf of @FacingUp, was nonpartisan and devoid of political name-calling, with passion instead attaching itself to the issues: the size of the deficit and debt, the politicians' and students' own proposals, and the degree to which each might help the nation get on a more solid fiscal footing.

Emporia's economics students, led by Professor Rob Catlett, have been studying the problem as participants in the Students Face Up to the Nation's Finances nonpartisan curriculum on the nation's fiscal future. We're pleased to announce that three of them are among the winners of the final round of the Facing Up contest for essays relating to the deficit and debt crisis and what should be done about it.

And here's the official winner list:

Best Multimedia Essay By A College Student

"It's Up To Us" by Kelsey Ryan, Shane Wilson, & Kellen Jenkins of Emporia State (colleagues at The Bulletin, ESU's award-winning newspaper, seen here together celebrating a job well-done)

Best Written Essay By A College Student

"Means-Testing Social Security" by Zachary Skaggs of American University, in Washington, D.C. (an enthusiastic student of economics, currently prepping for med school, with an understandable strong interest in health care reform and cost control, among other things)

Congratulations to all! And thanks to everyone who entered the discussion is one of the most important parts of our Students Face Up program (available free of charge thanks to a grant from the Peter G. Peterson Foundation) to help students and other concerned citizens get involved in making choices to build a better future.

Each prize is worth $500 (ESU's winners will have to split their prize three ways). But that's not the only take-away for our winners, who plan to continue raising the consciousness of other Americans on this issue, especially those in their own generation, who have a lot at stake as the national debt clock zooms forward.

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01.28 Calling the Question on the National Debt

Thursday, January 28th, 2010 | Ruth Wooden

In the State of the Union speech last night, President Obama said the one of the most thoughtful ways of attacking our budget crisis is to name a bipartisan commission to guide our fiscal future onto a sustainable path, in contrast to the unsustainable path we are on now.

A commission of experts can certainly come up with reasonable suggestions for how to create a sustainable federal budget. But the debate over the national debt and the federal budget isn't just about money, it's about values, and as President Obama said last night, it's also about trust. The federal budget is an expression of our priorities as a country. How we trust our government to spend the taxpayers' money (and who gets taxed) says something about what Americans value, and what we don't.

Budget debates reflect fundamental differences in public values, priorities, and the tradeoffs they're willing to make to accomplish their goals. People hold sharply different values about what they want or need from government, what government can actually deliver, and what role it should play in daily life. These differences in beliefs and interests need to be recognized and reconciled before the government can make long-term budget decisions.

If you judge the United States by its budget, however, you might be forgiven for thinking Americans are a little muddled on key points. As a nation, there's a fundamental mismatch between what our government spends and what takes in, a situation that's going to get worse in the foreseeable future. So far, our political system we've been wanting more from the government than we've been willing to pay for some time.

One of the most crucial points about the Choosing Our Nation's Fiscal Future report is that it calls the question and asks for dialogue on some of the fundamental questions that underlie our budget problems. How big should our government be? What kind of services do we want? How are we going to pay for it? What do we need to do to ensure fairness between older and younger generations?


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01.27 An Interactive State Of The Union

Wednesday, January 27th, 2010 | Francie Grace

Your thoughts won't flash on the U.S. Capitol podium, but this year's State of the Union address (9 p.m. ET, on most TV networks, many radio outlets, and live on the web and the iPhone) will be different.

As soon as President Obama begins delivering his report on the condition of this country and his proposals for what should be done to face our most urgent problems, YouTube will begin accepting videos with follow-up questions for the president, whose comments are expected to include the formation of a commission on the federal budget deficit (for more on that, click here).

Folks who log onto the Citizen Tube page will also be able to vote on questions for the president, who will answer some of them next week in a live online event.

But you don't have to go on YouTube to have a real time interactive experience with the State of the Union. Log onto Twitter during the president's speech, the Republican response, or afterwards, and if you include the hashtag #FiscalFuture in your message, your comments on the federal budget deficit and national debt will be part of the ongoing conversation.

You can view the conversation live by clicking on #FiscalFuture in your own message or elsewhere, or you can go to search.Twitter.com and search for #Fiscal Future.

Our discussion is nonpartisan, so please try to stick to the subject of the problem and potential solutions, and play nice. We hope to see you there!

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01.25 Heading for a Commission?

Monday, January 25th, 2010 | Scott Bittle

A bipartisan commission of some kind to make recommendations on reducing the deficit and controlling the national debt is looking more and more likely. The Senate is supposed to vote on the idea Tuesday, but if that fails, reports say President Obama will announce he'll appoint a panel by executive order in the State of the Union speech. Meanwhile, while it isn't clear how the public will fit into the commission process, what is clear, in the latest the latest Pew Research Center survey, is that public concern over the deficit is both rising and relatively bipartisan.

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