Manchin summit to focus on solutions to federal debt problem
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Sen. Joe Manchin believes fixing the federal government's long-term debt problem is the key to getting the nation's economy going again.
Manchin, D-W.Va., is hosting what he's calling a bipartisan fiscal summit at the state Culture Center this morning. Since he was elected to the Senate in 2010, Manchin has been frustrated over the way Congress and President Barack Obama have dragged their feet to get the federal government's now $16 trillion and growing debt under control.
During a Friday phone interview, Manchin said the bleak long-term fiscal forecast for the country has weakened confidence. With current economic growth stagnant, Manchin said it's critical that leaders step up to restore that confidence.
"If we do the right thing and we're able to come together as Americans and fix the finances as we should, I don't think we'll be able to catch the market as fast as it will grow," he said. "I believe it."
The forum will feature former U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., and Erskine Bowles, who served as White House chief of staff during former President Bill Clinton's administration.
Simpson and Bowles served as co-chairmen of the bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, which President Barack Obama formed in 2010 to come up with a way to get the country's burgeoning debt under control.
While the commission produced a comprehensive, bipartisan plan to fix the problem in December 2010, the White House and Congress largely ignored that plan because it called for making politically unpopular choices.
Provisions included raising payroll taxes and retirement age to shore up Social Security, reducing farm and student loan subsidies, and closing some overseas military bases.
While Manchin said he doesn't agree with everything in the Bowles-Simpson plan, he said it was the best starting point when compared to any other current proposal.
"You have to agree that you need to have a big picture to get our financial house in order," Manchin said. "Bowles-Simpson is by far the absolute roadmap."
The plan has a three-pronged approach: curbing government expenses and reducing waste, eliminating loopholes in the tax code that are commonly exploited by individuals and corporations, and reforming entitlement programs.
He said the plan doesn't severely cut Social Security and Medicare, but it does help those programs become more viable in the long run.
Manchin has said he does not favor changing either program for those near retirement, but he said changes must be made to reduce costs and wastes.
"You don't have to change the core values, but you do have to run them more efficiently," he said.
In a statement Friday, Capito said she was looking forward to having a bipartisan, common sense discussion about ways to solve the problem.
"Our nation has sunk $5.4 trillion deeper into debt to a record $16 trillion, or $51,000 per American," Capito said. "We cannot keep going down this path."
Put politics aside
Manchin said the key to working out the problem is to get leaders on both parties to set aside hyper-partisan rhetoric and commit to work together to craft a plan.
It's an attitude Manchin says is sorely lacking in Washington. Since joining Congress in 2010, Manchin said leaders in both parties have made clear a number of times that they won't budge from the party line in order to tackle the country's fiscal problems.
"Politics trumped everything," he said.
He said he's been dumbfounded and appalled at the way political leaders look at the nation's finances.
As governor, Manchin was constitutionally required to have a balanced budget. No requirement exists on the national level.
Manchin said when he began asking budget analysts and Congressional leaders about the budget process, they focused more on government spending side than figuring out a way to pay for it.
"I asked the question when I first went to Washington, 'What's the revenue going to be in the first 2011 budget?'" Manchin said. "They said that they estimated approximate spending of about $3.5 trillion.
"I told them, 'I understand you're committed to spending $3.5 trillion, but do you have any idea how much revenue you're going to be bringing in?'"
He said they eventually admitted they only expected to receive about $2.2 trillion in revenue during the budget year.
"I said you don't have to be a mathematician to figure that out, people in West Virginia know how to count," Manchin said. "This is insane."
But the anecdote Manchin says is most telling about the severity of the nation's finances came out of a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing he observed during his first year in Congress.
The freshman senator asked Adm. Mike Mullen, then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, what Mullen thought was the greatest threat facing the United States.
"I knew about the dangers in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Israel, Syria and Russia, so I'm really intently listening because, boy, now we're really going to know what the hot spots are," Manchin said.
"But he never hesitated - he said it's the debt of our nation that's the greatest threat to Americans," Manchin said. "He was afraid we were coming apart from within because of the debt we had accumulated."
West Virginia model
West Virginia has faced its own debt crisis before, when long-term liabilities in the 1980s pushed the state to the brink.
Manchin said West Virginia leaders have done a good job over the past few decades to reform finances.
He said that experience could serve as a model for the federal government. While cuts and changes were necessary, he said leaders carved out essential priorities that must continue.
"We took our priorities based on our values - which are our children, their education, and our seniors, making sure that they and our veterans get the care they need," Manchin said. "Those were our basic building blocks."
Manchin said getting the state on the right fiscal track helped insulate it when the economy started to turn in 2007.
The recession in West Virginia was relatively light compared to other parts of the country.
Manchin said the policies he and the Legislature put in place - such as privatizing workers' compensation and cutting long-term liabilities - improved the state's business climate.
"People had confidence to invest and grow the economy," he said. "When you build confidence in public trust, that's a formula for success."
He said 20 Republican and 20 Democrat senators have committed to using the plan as a roadmap for reform.
Manchin said he wished Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney would make a strong commitment, if elected, to solve the debt crisis in a bipartisan, Bowles-Simpson-like fashion.
"God, that will be a breath of fresh air, wouldn't it?" he said.
Today's event will be held from 9 a.m. to noon at the Culture Center. Manchin hopes people will come out and listen to the ideas discussed.
"I'm just encouraging everyone that please, if you've ever been concerned and you know that there needs to be a path to fix this, then join us at 9 o'clock in the Culture Center," Manchin said.
"We owe it to them to at least listen and have a chance to understand it."
Contact writer Jared Hunt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5148.