WASHINGTON -- The Concord Coalition managed to get a little media attention the other day when it outlined its plan for eliminating the federal deficit by 2000. There were stories on NBC and CNN and in several major newspapers.
To some extent, this was a testimonial to the stature of the coalition's leaders. Republican Warren Rudman earned a reputation for candor as a senator from New Hampshire, and Democrat Paul Tsongas a similar reputation for straight talk as a candidate for his party's presidential nomination last year.
There also may have been another element -- a recognition by the press that the group's demand for means testing of entitlement programs, including Social Security, is the only ultimate answer to the deficit dilemma. The plan is, in short, heavy on the real world, light on the usual political pipe dreams -- something that is always easier when the advocates of such a program are no longer running for office themselves.
What was most striking about the reception given the Concord Coalition, however, was the contrast with the usual media frenzy that seems to develop every time Ross Perot sticks his head up and claims time on the national television networks. The contrast was made even the more striking because the Rudman-Tsongas plan spells out in specific detail a road to a balanced budget while Perot is still throwing out wild figures and talking about looking under the hood and cleaning out the barn.
Brandishing a copy of "the zero deficit plan," Rudman told a small group of reporters: "Here are all the answers that Ross Perot has questions on."
Rudman and Tsongas made a point, however, of not bad-mouthing Perot. Instead, they credited him with bringing the deficit issue to the forefront of political debate. It was clear they realize that many of the 100,000 members of the coalition are also Ross Perot supporters.
The coalition projects a deficit of $251 billion in fiscal 2000 under existing policy. It would wipe it out with about $71 billion in new revenues and savings of $35 billion in interest costs, $19 billion in domestic spending, $7 billion on defense spending and a whopping $118 billion on entitlements. That last is, of course, the heart of the matter -- the big implacable item in federal budgets that cannot be seriously challenged under conventional political thinking.
The key provision would apply to the 42 percent of Americans who earn more than $40,000 a year. Their benefits from entitlement programs would be cut back 10 percent for every $10,000 of income above $40,000 but phased in over six years. The coalition plan also would raise the retirement age from the current 65 years to 68 by 2006. Under existing law it would reach only 67 and not until 2017.
The potential for political mayhem in the Tsongas-Rudman plan is obvious. Retired taxpayers will be complaining, as they do now, that "I want to get my money back" when, in fact, most of them get back far more than they ever paid into the system. The later retirement age would surely encounter more opposition from unions, many of whose members want to quit as young as possible and many of whose leaders want to open up the jobs for younger people as quickly as possible.
But the former senators are on the road, constantly broadcasting their message that there is no such thing as a free lunch. And Tsongas says he intends to establish a huge presence in the states in which the early stages of the 1996 presidential election will be held, Iowa and New Hampshire most obviously, to try to pressure candidates into more realistic positions on the deficit issue and the entitlements. The coalition now claims 100,000 members and 250 or so local chapters, and Tsongas said he thought it might reach "critical mass" with a half-million members.
What is clearly lacking, however, is a leader with a big mouth and big bank account comparable to Ross Perot -- one who can make himself a player in the press simply because he obviously has the wherewithal to make himself a player in presidential politics.
Perot has yet to come up with any answers on the deficit but when you have enough money to spend answers may not be necessary. If they want to be taken seriously, maybe Rudman and Tsongas should become billionaires.