The two of us have a long and winding relationship — one that began as opponents on the campaign trail in the race for the House seat from Maine’s 2nd Congressional District. At the time, neither of us could have imagined that we would be co-authoring an OpEd two decades later. Yet — because neither of us could have imagined such a senseless government shutdown — here we are, together again.
Barely a year after we ran against each other in 1994, disagreements between President Bill Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich led to a protracted government shutdown. It is telling that most Americans can’t remember exactly what the budget battle was about in 1995-1996, but what they do remember is being furious at their representatives in Washington.
Today’s elected leaders seem to have completely ignored the lessons we learned almost 20 years ago: The American people demand that their leaders work together, and, conversely, they can’t stand it when lawmakers throw tantrums when they can’t get exactly what they want and then refuse to talk with each other.
Worse still for our national discourse is the fact that the arguments that have led Congress to shut down the government are merely distractions from the serious fiscal issues affecting our nation. Lost in the partisan bickering over the continuing resolution is the fact that Congress has not passed a budget in years, and the federal debt has skyrocketed as we’ve lurched from one fiscal crisis to the next. Washington should be focused on how to get our economy growing and how to get our unsustainable national debt under control. A closed government, in addition to hurting the country and the economy, impedes any progress in tackling our nation’s long-term fiscal challenges.
The debt isn’t simply some abstract problem at $17 trillion. An overly large debt burden could very well hike up interest rates, inflation rates and unemployment rates. It could slow economic growth. It would squeeze budgetary resources from what should be our national priorities, such as infrastructure, education and national security. And it very well could increase the likelihood of a debt-fueled economic downturn in the future.
So, what should our elected leaders do? They should begin by engaging in a real conversation — involving listening to each other as well as talking. They need to rebuild mutual respect if they are ever going to agree to put their partisan differences aside and do what’s right for the country — not just what will get them re-elected. As soon as possible, President Barack Obama and congressional leaders should agree to reopen the government. They should then immediately appoint a conference committee to engage in an honest and open debate about the Democrats’ and Republicans’ visions of our federal budget. They should raise the debt ceiling while also having a serious discussion on how to bring down our debt as a share of the economy, including addressing the true drivers of our long-term debt, namely our entitlement programs and the tax code.
Our commitment to seeing sincere debate over our nation’s true fiscal problems — rather than just political posturing — is why we are co-chairs of the Maine chapter of the Campaign to Fix the Debt ( www.fixthedebt.org). Founded by Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles — the two most trusted men in deficit reduction — the campaign is a nonprofit, nonpartisan national organization committed to getting our leaders to come to an agreement to gradually reduce our debt as a share of the economy.
Political brinksmanship is good for neither party, and certainly not for the American people. Just as the two of us are able to work together despite our political differences, we hold out hope that members of Congress and the administration can find a way to move past the current impasse and start addressing the serious problems that Americans sent them to Washington to fix.
John Baldacci, a Democrat, is a former governor of Maine and member of the House of Representatives. Rick Bennett, a Republican, is the former president of the Maine Senate and is the current chairman of the Maine Republican Party.