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The Dead-End Debt Commission


News reports indicate that the much-discussed Obama Debt Commission will be announced tomorrow, with former Clinton White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles and former Republican senator Alan Simpson co-chairing the effort.

Skeptical congressional Republicans are being attacked as obstructionists for threatening not to participate in the commission’s work. But they are right to dismiss the credibility of this effort from the get-go. It’s quite plainly a partisan set-up, and certainly not a genuine bipartisan exercise. Moreover, it’s designed mainly to protect the president, not to solve a pressing national problem that the administration would make worse with the policies it is pursuing.

The commission will apparently have eighteen members, twelve of whom will be appointed by the president and Democratic congressional leaders, while only six will be appointed by Republican leaders in Congress.

The president and his aides say that the partisan balance will actually be 10 to 8, not 12 to 6, because two of the president’s picks can’t be Democrats. But this is nothing more than a cynical political game. The president gets to appoint the Republican co-chair? Let’s put the shoe on the other foot. How would Democrats view things if Mitch McConnell or John Boehner were picking the lead Democrat? Instead of Erskine Bowles, that might mean someone like former Georgia governor Zell Miller defining the Democratic position on taxes and entitlements for the rest of the party. Does anyone seriously believe that national Democrats would quietly go along and participate in a panel under such circumstances? Of course not, and neither should Republicans.

Indeed, Senator Simpson is already making statements that show he is truly Obama’s choice. He is scolding Republicans for threatening not to participate in the panel, and echoing the dubious White House line on the Massachusetts Senate election, saying it wasn’t so much a repudiation of Obama’s liberal agenda as it was an angry reaction to Washington inaction. Moreover, he is already signaling that he will support a tax increase as part of the commission’s recommendations, apparently employing the tried-and-true negotiating tactic of preemptive capitulation.

Then there’s the issue of health-care. The president and his advisers have said they have no intention of abandoning the health-care bills that have passed the House and Senate, despite overwhelming evidence of intense public opposition. The primary reason for long-term budgetary imbalance is out-of-control spending on health-care entitlements. And so what would the Democratic health-care bills do? Stand up another runaway health-care entitlement, of course. The Congressional Budget Office has said that the new spending commitments in both the House and Senate-passed bills would reach about $200 billion in 2019 and increase 8 percent every year thereafter. Moreover, if enacted, a health-care bill would dramatically reduce the options available to the new Debt Commission. It would not be possible to seriously consider fundamental Medicare reforms just months after Congress voted to cut payments to Medicare providers by nearly $500 billion over a decade. Nor would Democrats go along with scaling back a new health-care subsidy program they just spent two years getting into law. Team Obama’s plan here is quite obvious: lock in a partisan health-care program over the unanimous objections of congressional Republicans, and then to try to get Republican help to clean up the government’s budgetary mess. That Republicans are resisting this one-sided game should surprise no one.

If any further evidence is needed that the Obama Debt Commission is a farce and should not be taken seriously by Republicans, it can be found in the laughable timeline the Obama White House is pushing for the commission’s recommendations and follow-on congressional action. The plan is to have the commission spend most of this year behind closed doors coming up with the most far-reaching tax hikes and spending cuts seen in a generation. Then, after voters have already cast their ballots in the mid-term congressional elections in November, the commission would make its recommendations known and the lame-duck Congress would take them up and pass them in a matter of weeks, with almost no time for public debate. And politicians wonder why the electorate is cynical.

The fundamental problem here is lack of presidential leadership. If the president thinks the long-term budget outlook is a serious threat to economic prosperity, he needs to do more than talk about it and punt the solution to a commission. It’s clear that most Democrats, the president included, have no appetite to restrain and reform government. They believe the solution is a massive tax increase. But, despite their commanding majorities in Congress, they don’t have the guts to propose one. Indeed, the president was elected in no small part because he promised middle-class voters he would not raise their taxes. Now he is trying every maneuver possible to renege on that promise without saying so — and pin the blame on Republicans if he can. Republicans, of course, should do everything they possibly can to make sure he doesn’t get away with it.


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