The federal deficit is not something that most Americans spend a lot of time thinking about. It’s a big, abstract number that’s difficult to understand. On top of that, it doesn’t impact most people’s everyday lives — for now, anyway.

If Congress does not take steps to reduce the deficit, the government will soon spend more money paying its debt than any other expenditure. This could lead to a shortfall for major government programs like Social Security and Medicare.

The deficit is a complex problem with no quick fixes. At a time when most politicians only seem to be concerned with the next election cycle, it’s difficult to garner the support needed to achieve long-term, structural changes like deficit reduction.

The Manhattan Institute, a free-market think tank, recently released a report tracing the history of what makes for a successful budget negotiation. Here’s what they found:

Public Support

At the end of the day, politicians serve their constituents and are elected to represent their interests in Washington. The deficit on its own is something that few people are likely to care about, but it’s possible to change that conversation by focusing on how the national debt impacts day-to-day life. 

According to the Manhattan Institute, this approach was successful throughout the 1980s, 90s, and early 2000s before the rise of the Tea Party and the more recent push for programs like Medicare for All. 

One potential solution for garnering support is to focus on the benefits that come from lower deficits, like a better-functioning Social Security system and more choice in Medicare. With time and consistent messaging, public support can grow for deficit reform.

Bipartisan Cooperation

Having the public’s buy-in for change is not enough to make reform actually happen. It also requires support from Republicans and Democrats in Congress. Today, however, “bipartisanship” is increasingly seen as a dirty word and something that does not carry much weight in Washington.

Much like building public support, achieving bipartisan consensus in Congress takes time and repeated interactions. It also requires strong leaders from both sides of the aisle who are willing to step up and put in the hard work to build coalitions within their parties. 

The Manhattan Institute offers several suggestions for how to achieve bipartisan consensus: 

  • Defining the problem together, with each side expressing its desired outcome and creating legislative options to achieve those outcomes. 
  • After all reasonable options have been defined, both sides list their “must-haves” and “unacceptables,” and rank priorities in order to set the stage for concessions and compromises.
  • Seek trade-offs and compromises with the specific goal of each side’s victories.
  • When facing an impasse, expand the negotiation by bringing in outside issues that can break the deadlock.

Another option is to create an independent, bipartisan commission of experts who can advise lawmakers on strategies for deficit reduction. This model has proven successful in the past on deficit reduction, as well as issues like redistricting and government modernization.

What’s Next?

As we head into an election year, it seems unlikely that any major changes will happen on the deficit until after next November. However, the Manhattan Institute’s report lays the foundation for policymakers and voters to continue pushing for change.


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