On the Eve of Sequester Budget Cuts, Can Maya MacGuineas Fix the Debt?

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With just a day left before the mandatory budget cuts known as sequester kick in and a vote by the Senate today to reject alternatives, Washington, D.C. scrambles for its slice of the money pie -- a slice that's far too big, in the mind of anti-deficit hawk Maya MacGuineas and a coalition of budget experts and bipartisan politicos behind the Campaign to Fix the Debt.

She's in good company. A new USA Today/Pew Research Center poll finds Americans overwhelmingly believe the federal budget deficit needs shrinking.

And without higher growth rates, according to Moody's Investors Service, the U.S. sovereign credit rating will suffer.

But just how do lawmakers cut the fat and where? That's where the butchery gets nasty, often because it's personal.

Unlike most everyone else on the Hill, MacGuineas doesn't have a specific list of demands. From her website:

"While the Campaign to Fix the Debt does not endorse specific proposals, we hope policymakers will turn their attention to coming up with a plan that meets the principles laid out by the Campaign in order to put the nation on a firmer fiscal footing."

Sounds rather toothless. But in general, her seven criteria for deficit reduction includes putting the brakes on spending, reducing the deficit by a minimum of $2.4 trillion to fall below 70 percent of GDP by early next decade, reforming federal health and retirement programs, growing the economy through tax reforms, preserve the safety net and -- most intriguing -- "be bipartisan to ensure long-term political viability."

The Campaign to Fix the Debt generally advocates for the plan released recently by its founders, Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson.

Despite what seems like a fairly centrist platform, the political independent MacGuineas gets her share of poking. After all, who works so hard to reduce the deficit with no ulterior motive?

The Washington Post's profile on her "CEO-powered crusade against the deficit" highlights her big-dollar supporters -- like Honeywell's David Cote, who said he eventually gave into MacGuineas' pleas, saying: "Okay, okay, I'll contribute $1 million."

Other big political and corporate stars joined in her quest, such as New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and JP Morgan Chase VP James Lee, Jr.

Perhaps because of these friends in high places, critics accuse her of shilling for big business in order to see lower corporate tax rates and shield defense cuts in favor of social services.

Some even question whether she's an alarmist ringing bells that don't exist.

"...maybe (MacGuineas is) doing the entire nation a disservice by pretending an economic apocalypse is looming" - The Huffington Post

Yet, MacGuineas insists to those who don't believe the four horsemen approacheth -- or as she calls them, "debt deniers" -- the $16.4 trillion debt is very real, and she leaves all options on the table, defense and entitlement cuts alike.

The Campaign to Fix the Debt agrees with the recent Congressional Budget Office report showing that an abrupt reduction would hurt the economy in the short term.

And yet, immediate budget cuts across the board are scheduled to take effect on March 1, unless Congress comes up with a better plan today, which isn't looking likely right now.

"We're going to get push back in every direction," she told me recently of lawmakers on The Hill. "Some days, I wish they would outsource the tough choices... they never miss an opportunity to do the wrong thing."

This isn't MacGuineas' only crusade.

She's president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget and director of the Fiscal Policy Program at the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank.

The Washingtonian has advised numerous candidates for office from both parties. In 2000, she advised Senator John McCain on Social Security during his run for president.

She serves on the boards of numerous national, nonpartisan organizations and received her Master in Public Policy from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

For her latest challenge, she keyed in on an age-old political tactic: dinner parties.

Rather than march across the battlefield, theDolly Madison of debt banter throws dinners with high-wattage, omni-political guests. Everyone from economist Alan Greenspan to big labor's Andy Stern has broken bread at her table.

If her guest lists tip too heavily blue or red, she's been known to call off dinners.

"I love these dinners," she gushed. "We're convening people who are really different. It does get heated."

But the parties serve a purpose, besides eating and drinking. She's forcing communication outside the political theater where people of differing views can find common ground and galvanize on issues.

"We have two parties that spend all day beating up on each other and then, be expected to get work done," she said. "How can they lead an adult national discussion when they can't have one themselves?"

How indeed?

Clearly, there's interest and support behind a nonpartisan campaign to push Congress to get a deal. MacGuineas sought to raise $3 million and she's ended up with more than 14 times that amount. To date, more than 346,000 signed the campaign's online petition to "demand a common sense solution to prevent disaster and renew America's economic strength."

The hefty resources allowed MacGuineas to open the throttle -- pushing White House officials and members of Congress at the national level, while reaching out to Americans through state chapters. They're also kick-starting national TV advertisements.

The Campaign to Fix the Debt loftily hopes to undo the fierce hyperpartisanship that's followed in the years since President Reagan and House Speaker Tip O'Neil roamed the Hill.

"If we have true leadership in this country, the conversation includes 'Should we pay more taxes? Should we raise the retirement age? Cut the defense budget?' We should talk about all that and more if we're serious."

But ultimately, President Obama must lead all Americans to the promised land of economic solvency, which requires more than the $1.5 million in savings he mentioned in his State of the Union Address, she said.

"I think his State of the Union and some of the rhetoric was terrific," she said. "But when it comes to specifics, let's not fool ourselves that raiding more millionaires is going to easily solve the problem."

But what will? Are you willing to raise taxes and cut entitlements to solve the debt crisis? Tell us your ideas.

Learn more about Maya and the Campaign to Fix the Debt at www.fixthedebt.org.

~ Erica

Follow me @erica_holloway.

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