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Have a real U.S. federal budget debate

U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan’s 2012 budget is the first sensible, long-term fiscal blueprint to come out of Congress in decades. You could say it’s a budget of the grownups, by the grownups, for the grownups.

As such, it deserves what even President Obama says is needed, an “adult conversation” on the country’s financial health.

Not that there hasn’t already been comment on Ryan’s “Path to Prosperity.” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi accuses Ryan of “slashing support for seniors, children and Americans with disabilities.” The Wall Street Journal correctly notes that it’s “the most serious attempt to reform government in at least a generation.”

Plenty like it, plenty don’t, and many may not agree 100 percent but respect Ryan’s courage and honesty ― including the well-respected leaders of the president’s own fiscal commission.

There will be more debate in the House (where it is likely to pass) and the Senate (not so likely).

In normal times, that would be it. Back to business as usual in Washington. Look at how even Obama ignored the highly praised work of his own fiscal commission when drafting his 2012 budget. Ryan, a commission member, adopted more of their work than the president did.

The times ― and fiscal crisis we face ― demand better.

Let’s have a series of debates on the crisis. Take two or three hours of prime time for each. Focus on the fiscal challenges and possible solutions. The guiding principle: Inform the public.

That principle, of course, rules out the usual trappings of political debates. No 15-second soundbite answers, followed by 10-second soundbite rebuttals, followed by 5 seconds to stick your tongue out at your opponent. No showboat media types as moderators. No audience of sycophants.

Instead, follow the model set by Allentown’s Muhlenberg College in September 2009. At the height of all those raucous meetings on health care, the two men challenging Arlen Specter for his U.S. Senate seat ― Joe Sestak and Pat Toomey ― held an informative, civil debate/townhall on the issue.

It was ably moderated by Chris Borick, a political science professor at the college. Questions came from audience members who weren’t bias-free but were informed, direct and respectful. Candidates had plenty of time to answer questions and rebut each other.

With Toomey and Sestak, viewers had two smart guys ably representing the opposite sides of the health-care divide. They avoided the norm of political debates, twisting every answer into a personal attack. They certainly pointed out where they disagreed, but for the most part they answered the questions.

It wasn’t glitzy, but by the end you knew where each man stood on health care and why. Just as important, you had a sense of what each position could mean for the country.

Let’s do the same with the budget.

Put Barack Obama and Paul Ryan on the same stage. Round up a thoughtful audience.

Have two smart able men representing opposite ends of the budget debate explain the differences in their proposals and their vision for the country. Give them plenty of time to answer questions from the audience and each other.

Start with the obvious, the enormous $6.2 trillion difference in spending over the next 10 years in their respective proposed budgets. Have the president justify his higher level of spending; have the Wisconsin Republican answer for the historic amount of cuts he wants to make. Which plan addresses the trillion-dollar deficit, the $14 trillion national debt, the trillions promised in entitlements?

What’s the difference if government spends 24 percent of GDP, as the president proposes, or returns to the six-decade norm of about 20, as Ryan urges?

Why does Ryan have federal borrowing at 2 percent of GDP, vs. 10 percent now?

On taxes, have Ryan respond to the criticisms that his mix of lower rates and the elimination of loopholes are just more GOP gifts to the wealthiest Americans. Ask the president why he calls for higher taxes.

On health care, why would Ryan repeal the president’s reform and what would replace that coverage? Mr. President, where are the lower costs you promised under the new health-care law?

On Medicare, why is Ryan proposing changes for those under age 55 to a program similar to members of Congress get? Why does Obama leave Medicare unchanged? Is the program sustainable as is?

Why “block grant” Medicaid funding to states, as Ryan suggests?

And that’s just Round I.

Would it be a ratings blockbuster? Probably not. But in a nation ready for leaders who can act like grownups and treat citizens the same way, it would be must-see TV.

By Kevin Ferris

Kevin Ferris is assistant editor of the editorial page of the Philadelphia Inquirer. ― Ed.

(The Philadelphia Inquirer)

(McClatchy-Tribune Information Services)