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.”
However, that rhetoric will only get them so far. Such pronouncements by most Democrats merely prelude their insistence that any deal must “include revenue” (that is, raise taxes) and “protect investments” in (that is, spending on) research, infrastructure, education, and so on. And when many on the left say “everything is on the table,” what they actually mean is “everything but Social Security” — if not “everything but entitlements” altogether. Indeed, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is already launching attack ads against Republican congressmen accusing them of wanting to “CUT your hard-earned Social Security and Medicare benefits.” Naturally, the AARP has been lobbying heavily against significant changes to either program. If Democrats refuse to budge on entitlements, or even just on Social Security, Republicans will never sign on to a deal.
Similarly if Republicans are unwilling to accept any increase in revenue — not necessarily through higher tax rates, but possibly through the elimination of certain tax credits — many Democrats will walk away. Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, has been aggressively lobbying GOP senators to hold firm on taxes. ATR’s “Taxpayer Protection Pledge” — a commitment to “vote against any effort to raise the federal income tax on individuals or corporations” — has been signed by all but seven Republican senators. Norquist has been involved in a number of public flaps with Senators Coburn and Crapo ever since they voted to support the commission’s recommendations (deemed a violation of the pledge) and figures to be a prominent influence as the negotiations proceed.
That said, there is enough evidence to suggest that lawmakers on both sides may be willing to push for a compromise for the sake of what they consider the greater good. Coburn and Crapo, for instance, have been particularly defensive in response to Norquist’s criticism. “Our pledge is to protect taxpayers, not special interests,” they wrote in a letter to the ATR boss. “To do so we must analyze every aspect of the federal budget, including the tax code.”
“We don’t have the time nor the opportunity to do it all my way,” Coburn said recently on the Senate floor. “It’s going to be painful for everybody; it’s going to mean some senators are going to lose their jobs.” Even Paul Ryan, in a recent interview with the Associated Press, indicated that he could accept a slight increase in taxes, provided it was coupled with significant, fundamental spending reforms.
On the other side, moderate Democrats — such as Sens. Claire McCaskill (Mo.), Bill Nelson (Fla.), and Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D., Md.), top Democrats on the House Budget Committee — have suggested that Social Security remain on the table. Obama himself has refused to take it off the table, and both commission co-chairs are adamant that the program be addressed to ensure its solvency.
“There are plenty of people in this city who hope and pray we don’t do anything to Social Security,” Simpson said. “The word is solvency; it doesn’t have anything to do with cutting out old ladies or old men, torturing children, or throwing bed pans out of hospitals. It has to do with taking a public system that people are truly dependent on and making it solvent so it doesn’t go broke.” Bowles often points out that if nothing is done to reform Social Security, then beginning in 2037, recipients will receive an automatic 22 percent cut in their benefits.
“Some very difficult votes have to be made on both sides,” which will inevitably include voting for cuts to the $700 billion defense budget as well, Chambliss tells National Review Online. “We’re going to have to rise to the occasion.”
Retiring lawmakers may be particularly susceptible to this call. Senator Conrad, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee and a fiscally conservative Democrat, says his decision not to seek another term in 2012 will give him greater flexibility to make politically difficult decisions. That’s one reason that Republicans in both chambers view him as one of the most critical players in the fight for meaningful budget reform. In addition to Conrad, six other senators have announced their intentions to retire at the end of the session.
“History is going to judge whether we have the courage, character, and the vision to stand up for America’s future,” Senator Conrad said at the official “Moment of Truth” launch event on Capitol Hill.. “And those who take a walk, those who turn away, those who don’t have the gumption to stand up are going to be judged very, very harshly.”
President Obama needs to decide which side of history he wants to be on. Members of congress agree that nothing meaningful will ever come of their negotiation as long as the president remains on the sidelines.
Conrad recently told a gaggle of reporters outside the Senate chamber that considerable momentum was gathering behind “The Gang of Six” and their efforts. However, the biggest challenge ahead would be to publicize those efforts and educate the American people as to why they are so important to the country’s future. One reporter suggested: “Isn’t the president the best man for that job?”
“You think?” Conrad shot back, barely cracking a smile.
— Andrew Stiles is a 2011 Franklin Fellow.