Capitol Hill leaders observe two National Issues Forums held in Washington, DC, December 5, 2011

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This post was written by Diane U. Eisenberg

On December 5, 2011, some sixty persons – forum participants and representatives of various Congressional offices and national and state associations – met at the Hall of States on Capitol Hill to address “A Nation in Debt”, a featured issue on this year’s National Issues Forums (NIF) agenda.

Given the size of the group, it was decided to convene two forums in adjoining rooms. Forum participants included delegations from the Legacy Leadership Program at the University of Maryland, the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) members from Victoria Falls, Maryland, and a student government class from Montgomery College, Maryland, thereby, adding an intergenerational perspective to the deliberations. One forum was co-moderated by Sharon Simson and Doris Goodlet of the Center for Public Life at the University of Maryland. The other forum was co-moderated by Bill Corbett and Beth Offenbacker, Center for Voter Deliberation of Northern Virginia. Michelle Scott, Montgomery College, served as recorder.

The representatives from Congressional offices and national and state associations served as observers of what for them was an opportunity to witness a different kind of conversation, one in which citizens brought their personal stakes and values to options for moving forward toward resolving their own and the country’s national debt.

After reviewing the ground rules and viewing the starter video, participants in both forums progressed diligently and systematically through the issue book options, arriving at their preferred approaches and identifying the tradeoffs or drawbacks for each.

Central to the conversations in both forums was a strong sense of disappointment in our nation’s leadership. While the participants were able to arrive at specific suggestions for each option, they expressed a strong sense of skepticism that they could be heard, and a feeling of lack of control. A sampling of frequently articulated comments were:

  • I feel like a ball that is being manipulated and tossed around
  • The system is just too big and poor little me has no say
  • Things are out of whack; we need cultural changes
  • The political will to affect change is missing
  • The government needs to come together to solve problems
  • We can’t do anything in the current political situation
  • The Congress needs to take action, DO something
  • They need to listen to the citizens and get off the dime

Despite this striking skepticism, there were points on which the participants agreed. Many were willing to accept higher taxes. They believed that the retirement age needs to be raised. They felt that entitlements should be reassessed. The one point on which there was total agreement was the need to strengthen our education system with emphasis on STEM education (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) and the addition of financial literacy courses into the high school curriculum. And finally, they agreed that it would take a combination of all three choices for progress to be made.

When asked to express their reactions to what they heard, several of the observers said the experience was interesting, but not surprising  . . . “it’s a complex issue and we are in a heap of trouble.” However, they were impressed by the forum participants’ willingness to tackle such a multifaceted problem and to make real changes.

The representative from the House Agricultural Committee said it was good to hear from people outside the Beltway, but he reminded the group that Congress reflects the American people - - the divisions in Congress reflect our society. When asked what was different about this conversation, one thoughtful observer commented that true emotions come through, “it’s not like reading a report”, “it was not only what they said, but how they said it.”

During the summing up period, several forum participants said that despite their frustration they found great value in the forum experience as a way of not only expressing their own ideas, but learning how others felt about the issue. They praised the issue book because “it forces you to look at all aspects.” And, in general, “forums create opportunities to think more deeply and speak more candidly.”

These forums, organized by Alice Diebel and Phil Lurie, were appreciated by all who attended. Because they were held in Washington, D.C., they offered an opportunity for Capitol Hill leaders to hear first hand “a public voice.”