democracy is a work in progress

Maya MacGuineas: Fiscal Warrior, Systems Fixer

2021-10-01T09:40:37-05:00
Maya MacGuineas
Problem Addressed National Debt
Solution Launched FixUS to address broken political system; early advocate for pandemic relief spending
Location Washington, DC
Impact National

What she did

As President of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, Maya MacGuineas and her team responded to years of congressional inaction on the rising national debt by launching FixUS, an initiative to bring together reform-minded organizations to help get the government working again. A month after the launch, the pandemic struck and “deficit hawk” MacGuineas became an early advocate for COVID relief spending, even as it meant exploding the national debt well beyond 100% of GDP.

Her story

Throughout her 18 years at the helm of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget (the Committee), publications around the country have called Maya MacGuineas a “deficit hawk” and an “anti-deficit warrior” – usually with respect. As President of the Committee, she has advised political campaigns, frequently testified on Capitol Hill, and relentlessly pursued the support of CEOs around the country for the Committee’s Fix the Debt initiative.

That’s why her early and vigorous advocacy for COVID relief spending stands out. The five relief bills signed by President Trump and President Biden’s stimulus efforts have put the national debt on a trajectory that will send it well beyond 100% of GDP – in other words, deep into the red zone that MacGuineas and the Committee have warned about for years. Yet, they supported each bill – just as they advocated for stimulus spending following the Great Recession.

MacGuineas speaks and writes with a clear-eyed and purposeful view of her decisions: The Committee supported the first COVID relief bills, amounting to almost $4 trillion, because it believes the time to spend is when the economy is in crisis, regardless of the level of current debt. There was “no better poster child of when you should borrow” than last year’s pandemic, she says.

Of the Committee’s early advocacy for spending, she notes that being “timely was the most important of the three T’s – timely, temporary, and targeted.” Indeed, despite urging Congress to avoid inclusion of partisan policy proposals unrelated to COVID relief, the Committee did not equivocate in its support for the relief bills even though they included some policies it believed were poorly targeted or were not specific to the legislation’s intent. Instead, the Committee set up the COVID Money Tracker, which allows the public to examine where all that money is going according to the piece of legislation, recipient type, recipient industry, and receiving state or territory.

MacGuineas and the Committee do much more than bang the drums incessantly to eliminate deficits, reduce the debt, and fix the Social Security and Medicare Trusts. Their position, while clearly defined, is far more nuanced. As the economy has begun to recover, MacGuineas has begun to express more caution about recent proposals calling for investments in traditional and other infrastructure.

“Often people try to oversimplify or almost create a caricature out of what it is to be fiscally responsible,” MacGuineas explained. Rather, MacGuineas has sometimes referred to herself as a fiscal hawk who has little tolerance for the intrusion of politics into decisions that should be based on sound economics.

And it has been that failure of politics in the nation’s capital that led the Committee to launch FixUS, an effort to explore and identify mechanisms for rebuilding bipartisan problem solving at the federal level. The Trump tax cuts in 2017 appear to have been the final straw. Accompanied by increases in spending, the cuts were, in MacGuineas’s view, “the height of fiscal irresponsibility.”

Discouraged by years of hypocrisy on the debt issue and facing the reality of a sharply divided nation that precluded the likelihood of progress on its primary issue, the Committee conceived FixUS in 2018 and formally launched it in January 2020. As a substantial departure from the Committee’s almost 40 years as a single-issue organization, it’s an initiative that MacGuineas wryly acknowledges is “certainly mission creep”. Yet, even though FixUS is not directly focused on fiscal responsibility, its goal is to overcome the political dysfunction and divisions that prevent Congress and the president from even attempting solutions to debt management and other vital concerns.

Failed Leadership

When discussing accountability for our current historic debt, Maya MacGuineas has no doubt about the cause:

“The borrowing that we engage in as a nation is primarily driven by politicians not wanting to make hard choices.”

The fault lies with both parties, she says, but for different reasons. Republicans, who claim to want smaller government, have not backed up their talk with the right action. “The hypocrisy there is really, really damaging. If you want smaller government, which is a completely legitimate point of view, here’s how you do it: You don’t cut taxes, you cut spending…. When we look at how much different members of Congress have voted to borrow, the GOP is filled with really big spenders.”

Democrats, on the other hand, have long denied “the fact that we’ve had to do something about Social Security and Medicare and the programs that have built-in growth – [problems that] cannot be ignored. And I also think the arguments we’ve heard more recently – that we can fix all these things just from taxing millionaires and billionaires, which just is not aligned with the size of the kinds of initiatives people are talking about – is also disingenuous.”

MacGuineas concludes, “No wonder the country doesn’t trust anybody.”

Want more MacGuineas?

MacGuineas had a lot more to say during our conversation about what we can do to move forward as a nation. Check out what she said – it’s all an effort to push for real policy debate.

Read more MacGuineas

To date, FixUS has largely focused on a talking-and-listening campaign that has engaged citizens at the grassroots level in discussions and brought together like-minded organizations to share strategies and updates on what’s being done to get the government working again. Without endorsing any specific solutions, it has promoted reports such as Our Common Purpose from the Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship and events such as the recently-held National Week of Conversation. Sponsored by America Talks, the latter involved a series of one-on-one and small group video conversations that sought to bring together thousands of Americans for discussion on bridging the political divide. FixUS also regularly publishes reports on polling and focus groups that it conducts and offers suggestions for citizens to get engaged.

MacGuineas has been looking at the world through the lens of national debt for so long that it is hard to imagine a time when the debt was not her primary focus. But there was a period after she graduated with a double major in economics and psychology from Northwestern University when she hadn’t yet found that thing – that mission – that would shape her days. She even admitted to the Washington Times in 2009 that immediately after college she had considered a somewhat different path – bartending in London – from the one she chose.

MacGuineas ended up doing a two-year stint as a policy researcher at the Brookings Institution before moving on to Wall Street, where she was a stock analyst for Paine Webber. It was during this time, she says, that she became “obsessed” with federal deficits. Her obsession led to a job as policy director at the Concord Coalition and then to a master’s in public policy from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

Soon after obtaining her master’s, she went to work for John McCain during his bid for the 2000 Republican presidential nomination. The maverick McCain was a good, if temporary, fit for the proudly independent MacGuineas.

Of that period, she says, “I had a really tremendous time working with him and working on his Social Security plan and thought he was admirable and focused on all the right things.” McCain’s willingness to set aside party loyalty for the pragmatic solutions he thought were needed reflected a kind of political leadership that MacGuineas doesn’t readily see today.

After the campaign, she joined the New America Foundation and landed at the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget in 2003 when it temporarily became an in-house project of the Foundation. She has guided it steadily since.

MacGuineas is as fiercely competitive as she is independent, both characteristics that likely contribute to the warrior and hawk-like impressions that she leaves in her wake. But she also likes being a part of a team and thrives on collaboration towards common goals. That’s why a truly bipartisan political environment is so important to her – it offers a platform for civil debate and the opportunity to find creative solutions. “Healthy competition, I think, is part of the solution. Competition [that divides] an entity that’s supposed to be working together doesn’t make sense to me.”

For MacGuineas, the current situation is unacceptable. To face multiple, globe-changing events like the pandemic, climate change, cyber attacks, and China’s growing economic competition with an ever-rising debt “is nothing short of reckless and foolish.”

Her view, fortunately, is to always have a Plan B, as she recently explained to her two children. “In life, you should always have that Plan B. You never know what’s going to happen. And if something goes wrong, how will you handle it?”

FixUS, it seems, is MacGuineas’ Plan B for getting Congress to take action on the debt.

How would you fix the budget?

MacGuineas’s prescription for fixing the debt problem is “to do a little bit of everything”: First, all policies to do with taxing and spending have to be on the table; then and gradually over time, we have to raise taxes and cut spending, both in significant amounts, and fix our entitlement programs that are headed towards insolvency.

The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget has created five tools that allow you to better understand the decision-making needed to get the job done. Each tool begins with questions that probe what you think about the government’s role in the economy and your own prescription for regaining control of the debt.

  • Budget Personality: Find out which of eight budget personalities you are – a futurist? a people pleaser? an individualist? something else?
  • Boomers vs Zoomers: Which generation should incur the great debt burden?
  • Paying the Tab: How would you pay it all back?
  • More or Less: What should the government’s priorities be?
  • Budget IQ: How much do you know about the federal budget?

The full suite of tools can be found at Budgeting for the Future.

Editor’s note: The American Leader has participated in a number of FixUS events since our launch in 2019 in part because we share the belief, expressed by MacGuineas, that there are a lot of people out there who want to solve problems and make the country work better. Also, the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget has lent its expertise as a content partner in a review of our problem brief on the debt.

Written by George Linzer

Published on July 14, 2021

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Sources

Maya MacGuineas, interview with George Linzer and David Hawkings, May 24, 2021

Phil Izzo, “Secondary Sources: Health Care, Reich on GM, Borrowing”, Wall Street Journal, Jun 1, 2009, https://www.wsj.com/articles/BL-REB-5154, accessed Jun 3, 2021

Suzy Khimm, “In Maya MacGuineas, CEOs meet deficit hawk they can’t resist”, The Seattle Times, Dec 23, 2012, https://www.seattletimes.com/business/in-maya-macguineas-ceos-meet-deficit-hawk-they-canrsquot-resist-in-person/, accessed Jun 8, 2021

Alex Yablon, “The Deficit Hawks That Make Moderate Democrats Cower”, The New Republic, Mar 4, 2021, https://newrepublic.com/article/161549/maya-macguineas-crfb-pandemic-austerity, accessed Jun 8, 2021

Maya MacGuineas, “Don’t Play Politics with the Coronavirus Response”, Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, Mar 22, 2020, https://www.crfb.org/press-releases/dont-play-politics-coronavirus-response, accessed Jun 9, 2021

Maya MacGuineas, “Maya MacGuineas: Take It from a Fiscal Hawk: Raise the Debt Ceiling”, Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, Aug 9, 2017, https://www.crfb.org/blogs/maya-macguineas-take-it-fiscal-hawk-raise-debt-ceiling, accessed Jun 8, 2017

The Washington Times, “Budget panel president’s ‘exhausting’ dream job”, Dec 13, 2009, https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2009/dec/13/budget-panel-president-macguineas-exhausting-job/, accessed Jun 14, 2021

Ronald Brownstein, “John McCain’s 2000 Campaign and the Republican Road Not Taken”, The Atlantic, Aug 27, 2018, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2018/08/john-mccains-2000-campaign-and-the-republican-road-not-taken/568597/, accessed Jun 15, 2021

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