Engaged voters can help break the gridlock on federal budget

Copies of President Barack Obama’s 2016-17 federal budget are displayed by the Senate Budget Committee on Feb. 9. Republican leaders have already dismissed it.
Copies of President Barack Obama’s 2016-17 federal budget are displayed by the Senate Budget Committee on Feb. 9. Republican leaders have already dismissed it. The Associated Press

President Barack Obama released his 2016-17 budget and Republican leaders in Congress immediately pronounced it dead on arrival. House Speaker Paul Ryan has said the Budget Committee will not even hold a hearing on the president’s budget this year.

What will likely follow is a series of partisan proposals, designed to play to each side’s political base, that are unlikely to produce a sustainable budget or make meaningful progress in reducing the federal deficit.

This is not what voters in either party want. What’s needed is a way to break the gridlock and produce a budget that can win bipartisan support. What if the public could more effectively weigh in and demand better answers from our leaders?

Voice Of the People, a nonpartisan group, has been working on this very question. It has developed some powerful new online tools through its “Citizen Cabinet” initiative to give people a greater voice on complex issues like the budget. Starting out in three states last year, it has recently expanded to five more, including California.

The California Citizen Cabinet is a scientifically selected online panel of roughly 600 registered voters who will be going through a series of policy-making simulations on key issues facing Congress, including one just completed on the federal budget. Participants get a briefing on the issue, are presented options Congress is considering with pro and con arguments for each, then are asked to make their choices.

All the materials are reviewed in advance by top Democratic and Republican staff experts in Congress and various outside groups to make sure the information is accurate and unbiased. The offices of California Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein have been briefed on the results, which also have been distributed to every member of Congress and released to the public.

The findings from the budget survey offer both good news and not-so-good news to congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle. Republicans can point to the fact that Californians in both parties are far more serious about reducing the deficit than Congress or the president, with majorities wanting to cut the deficit by $280 billion next year – more than twice what Obama proposes. Democrats can point to the fact that a majority of Californians support raising taxes on upper-income taxpayers, including a majority of Republicans as well as Democrats.

Just as in Congress, the California Citizen Cabinet results revealed some significant differences in approach between Republicans and Democrats, but there was also plenty of common ground. Majorities of both parties agreed on $11 billion in spending cuts, and specific revenue increases totaling $42 billion.

The budget simulation is posted online; anyone can visit and draft a budget. They also can try their hand at Social Security reform and more. This new method allows average citizens to go through the same process our elected leaders go through – getting briefed, weighing competing arguments and coming to informed conclusions. They can then share their recommendations directly with their own members of Congress.

This is exactly the kind of dialogue we should be having about our national priorities. California voters now have the opportunity to lead the way.

Vic Fazio, who represented California’s 3rd and 4th Congressional Districts from 1979 to 1999, serves on the advisory board of Voice Of the People. He can be contacted at