Roles reversed Monday night when about 300 Arlington residents gave U.S. Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., tips on how to manage this country’s finances.

“I’m going to tell my colleagues this is what they ought to be doing all over the country,” Moran said to the crowd, which responded with a round of applause. “This is democracy at work.”

The Principles and Priorities workshop was presented by Moran’s staff and the Concord Coalition. They asked groups of residents to think and act like a mini-Congress in an effort to solve the nation’s debt crisis.

Not quite a “random sample,” as Moran pointed out, but a fairly diverse group of Arlington residents hashed out potential money-saving solutions such as eliminating the $1 bill, freezing defense spending at its current level for the next five years, gradually eliminating the home mortgage interest deduction, and raising the retirement age for Social Security eligibility to 70. Moran and the Concord Coalition highlighted issues like defense spending and certain tax cuts as large contributors to America’s overall debt.

The idea was for each group to come to a consensus about possible options for Congress.

Moran said he was “shocked” by two answers in particular – one about defense spending, and the other about mortgages.

For instance, all hands went up when asked which groups were in favor of freezing defense spending. Asked to explain their rationale, one man told the room his group felt it was time to “re-evaluate the priorities” within that budget.

The room fell into laughter and cheers when moderator Jeff Thiebert asked if anyone was against freezing defense spending and only crickets responded.

“I think your constituents have spoken on that one,” Thiebert, the Concord Coalition’s northeast regional director, told Moran.

“This is wonderful,” Moran said. “This is what I need to learn.”

The second shocker of the night was a near-consensus among the 300 participants regarding gradually eliminating the home mortgage interest deduction. One group was against the proposition, saying the elimination could hurt the incentive for buying homes.

Moran said it was feasible to make mortgage subsidies for individuals making $75,000 annually and for those making $1 million-plus more “comparable.”

All in all, though, he said he was “stunned” by residents’ opinions on the subject.

“My jaw dropped,” he said.

Participants also touched on the eligible age to receive Social Security.

The majority said that age should be gradually raised to 70 by 2035, noting the average life expectancy has dramatically increased since the federal program was instituted. Those opposed to the idea said they were concerned that blue-collar workers would suffer if the retirement age were raised.

Moran empathized with that concern, saying, “You’ve got to make an allowance for people who worked manual labor all their lives.”

Eliminating the $1 bill – which could save billions over time – divided the large conference room. Some said good riddance to the puny dollar, rationalizing that it was an easy cut where “nobody got hurt,” while others said it was a “ridiculous” idea that just acted as a distraction from more important issues like health care.

Closing out the night, Moran called the entire workshop “fascinating” and said “every member of Congress should do this.”

Resident Pablo Rocha said he thought the exercise was “a great idea” and very informative. Rocha said the event gave him insight into what Congress actually has to go through during its decision-making process because on some issues it was difficult for his group to come to a consensus.

Rocha said he “hoped” the stated purpose of Monday’s workshop – for Moran to eventually put his constituents’ ideas into action – would soon happen.

“Personally, I think he’ll use some of the ideas,” Rocha said.

Moran told the audience, “They’re your issues. They’re defining our nation. Share (your ideas) with me so that I’m better informed.”

Virginia’s 8th Congressional District, which Moran represents, includes Alexandria, Arlington County, Falls Church and parts of Fairfax County.

July 12, 2011