At a 2012 Memorial Day barbeque in Stowe, a handful of Vermonters and their friends began a political argument that in just a few weeks turned into a national petition calling for a nonpartisan approach to reducing the nation’s $16 trillion debt. The petition has almost 139,000 signatories to date.
Biddle Duke and Rob Foregger, two Stowe residents who started the petition, describe themselves as “accidental activists.” They view America’s total national debt as the most important issue in politics because touches “everyone and everything in America.”
“We got together on my porch, talked in terms of keeping it real, and asked: What could a small group of friends do that’s scaleable?” recounted Foregger, a businessman who founded the online bank Everbank.
The six friends, who are conservatives, libertarians and Democrats, drew up a citizens’ petition on change.org, a popular petition portal. They called for an approach based broadly on the failed Simpson-Bowles commission, which sought in 2010 to reduce the nation’s debt by both raising revenues and reducing spending.
Through group member Steve Silverman, a former deputy cabinet secretary for Bill Clinton, they managed to meet with former commission chair Erskine Bowles himself, who championed their idea. Bowles and other senior Washington politically connected types launched the national Fix the Debt Campaign in August 2012, adopting the Vermont petition word-for-word as their official petition.
To date the document has almost 139,000 online signatures– more than 92,000 people signed it the first week. Duke and Foregger said they hope to receive millions of signatures by mid-2013.
The petition comes at a time when members of Congress remain engaged in a bitter partisan battle over plans for cutting $1.2 trillion from the national budget. Because Republicans and Democrats couldn’t agree on cuts to the defense budget and social programs in 2011 they put a debt ceiling in place. The deal, according to The Hill, set automatic spending cuts as a penalty for a failure to agree on a plan. Under the Sequestration Transparency Act, about $109 billion in pre-determined reductions will be made this January, according to Politico. The Defense budget will absorb a disproportionate percentage of the reductions, while Social Security and Medicare will be protected. The Bush era tax cuts expire at the same time. Economists say the so-called “fiscal cliff” could throw the nation into another recession.
The national petition campaign aims to put pressure on elected officials to compromise sensibly on debt issues, said Ed Lorenzen, an adviser to the campaign. Lorenzen formerly worked on the staff of the Simpson-Bowles commission, and he said the “tough medicine” that the group prescribed might have alienated many people.
“The special interests opposed to any particular debt reduction can be loud,” said Lorenzen, who attributed failures to tackle the debt to a lack of political will. “We’re trying to give voice to the broader public interest.”
Vermont Congressman Peter Welch praised the importance of the petition’s bipartisan approach. It’s another indication, he said, “of Vermont activism ahead of the curve.” Welch has worked on bipartisan debt reduction efforts in the House.
Fix the Debt campaign volunteers attended both the RNC and the DNC conventions, and Democrats and Republicans showed equal interest, according to Lorenzen.
Lorenzen wouldn’t comment on Republican VP nominee Paul Ryan’s controversial federal budget plans, citing the nonpartisan nature of the campaign. Welch, though, placed blame squarely on Ryan for “killing” the Simpson-Bowles commission plan with his no vote, and said Ryan seemed more interested in “partisan political games” than debt reduction.
“Vermont has never been afraid to make a local statement that has national impact,” Duke said. “This whole idea, the genesis of it, was in the heart of the Green Mountains.” Foregger said Yankee common-sense and fiscal prudence were two other Vermont values ingrained in the movement.
The three other petition founders include: Craig DeLuca and Bob Anderson, two Stowe residents and businessmen, alongside Jim Del Favero, a software and personal finance executive from Silicon Valley.
Sources emphasized that no single factor is the main driver of the debt. They cited military spending on two wars, increased health care and government assistance costs, and low tax revenues due to the economic recession.
The original December 2010 Simpson-Bowles’ commission report is here, while information on the current federal debt can be found at the U.S. Treasury website. The public holds a debt of almost $11.3 trillion.
Correction: The barbeque mentioned in the first paragraph was held on Memorial Day in 2012, not on July 4 as originally written.