Revenge of the Deficit Commission?
The looming entitlement crisis is making some strange bedfellows.


Andrew Stiles

By rights, Obama’s deficit commission should be dead and gone.

Next month will mark the one-year anniversary of the first meeting of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, chaired by former Clinton chief of staff Erskine Bowles and former senator Alan Simpson (R., Wyo.). The deficit commission released a final report in December of last year, but failed to garner the 14-of-18 supermajority vote needed to mandate congressional action. Since then, President Obama, who created the commission by executive order, has been content to proceed as if it never existed, making only a perfunctory reference in his State of the Union address — buried under some 70 paragraphs of bloviation about Soviet spacecraft and “winning the future.”

Nonetheless, it looks like the commission is not done yet.

In the Senate, the four members who served on the commission, and supported the final recommendations, have taken up where they left off. Sens. Mike Crapo (R., Idaho), Tom Coburn (R., Okla.), Kent Conrad (D., N.D.), and Dick Durbin (D., Ill.) have teamed up with Saxby Chambliss (R., Ga.) and Mark Warner (D., Va.) — together they are dubbed the “Gang of Six” — not only to educate their fellow members on the ins and outs of the debt crisis, but also to work behind closed doors in an attempt to negotiate a grand compromise that would incorporate the commission’s recommendations into a piece (or pieces) of legislation that Congress could pass.

Just last week, Sens. Mike Johanns (R., Neb.) and Michael Bennett (D., Colo.) organized a letter to President Obama signed by 64 senators — 32 Democrats and 32 Republicans — seeking his engagement on a “comprehensive deficit reduction package” that would include “discretionary spending cuts, entitlement reform and tax reform.” A small step, to be sure, but 64 was many more signatures than either Johanns or Bennett had expected, and, as always in the Senate, anything over 60 is significant.

Over on the House side, Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan is preparing a 2012 budget that will take the conversation to a whole new level. Aides say it will be “one of the boldest fiscal documents in history” and propose significant reform to programs including Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, the primary drivers of the deficit. Ryan has also been leading an effort to educate the members of his own caucus, as well as the general public, on the need for entitlement reform.

Meanwhile, the duo of Bowles and Simpson has returned to the political scene, determined to “keep the heat” on politicians to support meaningful action to reduce the deficit. On March 8, they launched their “Moment of Truth Project,” borrowing from the title of their commission’s final report, in an effort to build on the political momentum gathering in Congress and ultimately achieve a meaningful compromise. The two testified before the budget committees of both chambers, urging lawmakers to act in order to avoid “the most predictable economic crisis in history.”

“A lot of us sitting in this room didn’t see this last crisis as it came upon us, but this one is really easy to see,” Bowles told senators at the hearing. “This debt and these deficits that we are incurring on an annual basis are like a cancer, and they are truly going to destroy this country from within unless we have the common sense to do something about it.” Bowles has expressed hope that in addition to the “Gang of Six,” as many as 40 senators would ultimately support some kind of broad deficit-reduction package — well short of the necessary 60, but perhaps enough to convince some holdouts to join the effort.

One thing to be said for the recent, and often rancorous, debate over federal spending for the remainder of fiscal year 2011 — which has so far focused on just 12 percent of the federal budget (Alan Simpson memorably described it as “a sparrow belch in the midst of a typhoon”) — is that it seems to have prompted more and more lawmakers to acknowledge the fact that meaningful deficit reduction will not be possible unless all aspects of the budget are on the table.

Liberal senators such as Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) and Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) have publicly called for a “reset” of current budget negotiations to bring everything into consideration. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D., Md.), has been downright Ryanesque at times during his weekly pen-and-pad sessions with reporters, using giant placards and pie charts to explain how entitlement spending contributes enormously to the national debt. And believe it or not, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) actually said the following about deficit reduction during a floor speech: “This is as serious a debate [as] we can have in the Congress of the United States because it affects our children and their future, because the deficits have gotten so far out of hand.”