Congratulations! You have just become members of Congress.
That was the message with which Rep. Tom O’Halleran greeted his constituents in Oro Valley on Tuesday, May 28.
The Congressman hosted a federal budget workshop at the Oro Valley Community Center in an effort to simulate the decision-making process in Washington, D.C. The Concord Coalition, a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating the public about the federal budget and its consequences, partnered with O’Halleran’s office to put on the event.
Participants split into groups of seven and had an hour to go through 42 line items that proposed a change to the federal budget. Each change would either add or subtract from the current $896 billion federal budget deficit.
Phil Smith, the National Field Director of the Concord Coalition, said the changes were all actual suggestions made by various members of Congress in recent years, both Republicans and Democrats. Suggestions varied from expanding access to child care, eliminating federal subsidies for intercity rail systems, providing two free years of community college to Pell-eligible students, limiting forgiveness of graduate student loans, eliminating Affordable Care Act subsidies, allowing for taxes on inherited wealth, capping increases in basic pay for military service members and much more.
Roleplaying as real voting members of Congress, each group had to identify a majority consensus on a line item before accepting or denying that change. Each group’s final budget varied, but most participants chose options that increased taxes on the country’s wealthiest.
“We invested in people, we invested in the potential for people to contribute at a higher rate to the economy,” participant Carol Quarton said of her group’s budget choices. “We also got rid of the Trump tax plan that was just passed because we feel that money should be more equally distributed so that all people can have a high quality of life, not just the top 1 percent.”
O’Halleran’s event comes at a good time to hear constituent feedback on funding priorities; he said Congress will devote the entire month of June to focus on the budget and its details.
“If you take a look at the wish list in Congress right now, and a lot of the priorities of the American people, you have to blend your way through the cloud of politics,” O’Halleran said. “We have to find a way to get through that cloud to get to reality.”
The real federal budget process starts with the president, who submits a budget request to Congress. The House and Senate then vote and pass their own budget resolutions, Appropriations subcommittees from both chambers create appropriations bills to set spending limits, each chamber debates and votes on the appropriations bills, and then the president signs each appropriations bill into law.
The Concord Coalition, which was founded in 1992, conducts these types of federal budget simulations on a regular basis. Smith hosts four or five himself each month, in cities and towns all over the country. Usually, they are done on college campuses or with chambers of commerce, but Smith said this partnership with an elected official is a win-win situation.
“This is my favorite thing that I do,” he said. “This is symbiotic because the Congressman gets to meet with constituents and learn how they feel about the budget, and we at the Concord Coalition get to fulfill our mission of educating people about federal budget policy.”
Through their work, Concord hopes to elevate everyday conversations about politics by providing real information that steers people away from the “bumper sticker talk,” Smith said.
“It’s a big problem right now, because there’s a lot of people who have zero information on these subjects and their voice is just as loud, sometimes louder than people who are much more informed,” he said.
O’Halleran said that in six years the federal government’s payments toward debt service will be the third-highest expense of the country, just under Social Security and Medicare. From conversations during the event, he found that many realized the budget-making process was not as simple as they anticipated, but despite a diversity of people in the room, participants were eventually able to find agreement on a multitude of issues.
“And this was in a non-political environment where there was no tension that politics has to play,” O’Halleran said. “They weren’t people seeking reelection or seeking this or party power or all this other stuff, it was about Americans talking to Americans, and that’s what we as a country should be all about.”