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America, We Need to Talk About the Deficit

In his inaugural column for The Root, Michael Steele takes both sides of the aisle to task for their reaction to Rep. Paul Ryan's budget.

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But establishment Democrats were worse. In fact, their response to Ryan's plan was typical. In the course of several press conferences, the words "vouchers," "privatize," "Bush" and "unfair" were used in full-throated fervor. Connecticut Rep. John Larson, Democratic Caucus chairman, called the Ryan road map an "excise tax on steroids" and noted that Ryan and the Republicans are "frozen in the ice of their own indifference." And we know what they had to say about Ryan's final budget proposal, recently passed by Congress.

There's one thing to be said about bipartisanship in Washington: Everyone wants it when officials sense something is about to change the way they do business. It's how they close ranks on a problem -- not necessarily in order to solve it.

At present our nation is lurching deeper into debt, with higher deficits and uncontrolled spending. The warning signs about just how precarious our situation is are become more clear with each passing day. The recent decision by the Standard & Poor's rating agency to downgrade the United States' credit outlook to "negative" sent a shock wave through the markets, resulting in a 140-point drop in the Dow. The public's growing concern and increasing skepticism about the ability of the White House and congressional leaders to move the budget agenda forward are stark and sad reminders of just how little confidence we have in both branches of government.

Over two administrations, the political establishment in Washington has indicted itself in its handling of our nation's business. There has been no change, only more of the same, and it will take an audacious stroke like Ryan's proposal to break the bait and switch of budget politics.

It's clear that Paul Ryan has thrown down the budget (and political) gauntlet. It's a risky but necessary move by Republicans in order to address the most significant and dangerous fiscal mess the country has confronted in three generations. Is the Ryan budget plan flawless? Of course not (it does very little to tackle defense spending, for example), but what I like most about Ryan's effort is that it has moved the public debate from how much more to spend to how much more -- and what -- to cut.

Now, if only our leaders would join Ryan and the American people and do the same without the characteristic demagogic rhetoric, hysterical exaggerations and budget gimmicks. That would be change we could believe in. Seriously.

Michael Steele is the former chairman of the Republican National Committee and served as lieutenant governor of Maryland from 2003 to 2007.

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