President Obama’s bipartisan fiscal commission is operating on a shoestring budget and some panel members and lawmakers worry that it may run short of money.
The 18-member commission faces the daunting challenge of coming up with proposals by Dec. 1 to tame the federal government’s trillion-dollar budget deficit. But the panel’s own budget
is only $500,000, barely enough to cover office rent and the salaries of four staff members.
And though the White House and Treasury have loaned the panel experts from their own payrolls, and several think tanks are helping as well, the total full-time staff currently is only about 15 people and not expected to exceed 20. Money is so tight that the commission recently abandoned hopes of holding field hearings around the country to gather views from outside of Washington.
Indeed, the commission only reimburses the travel expenses to and from Washington for its two co-chairs, former Republican senator Alan K. Simpson and Democrat Erskine W. Bowles. Simpson lives in Wyoming and Bowles lives in North Carolina. But the panel’s two other non-Washington members, Ann Fudge and David Cote, have to pay their own way to meetings.
The Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid, in a recent letter to President Obama, quietly relayed his worries about the commission’s resources after meeting with Bowles and Simpson.
“They expressed concern that the commission could use additional support to help it work more effectively,’’ Reid wrote to Obama on May 28. “In particular, they informed me that the staff resources available to assist the commission are very limited. This is concerning, especially given the breadth and difficulty of the issues that the commission must address.”
Reid’s letter was first reported
by the publication Tax Notes.
Bruce N. Reed, the panel’s executive director, said the commission wasn’t short of manpower. But he said the commission badly needed the ability to make fuller use of the budget and tax experts who work in Congress. The House Ways and Means Committee and Senate Finance Committees, which have jurisdiction over tax policy, each employ a small army of lawyers, accountants and tax policy specialists.
Congressional rules prohibit congressional staff from being detailed to any agency belonging to the executive branch, which includes the president’s fiscal commission. Simpson and Bowles have asked House and Senate lawmakers to relax their rules and noted that 12 of the panel’s members are current members of Congress. Indeed, the lawmakers include the chairman and ranking Republican on both the House and Senate budget committees. But the House Rules Committee recently decided that the prohibition could only be changed by passing new legislation, a hurdle that would take months to overcome.
The White House and Treasury have detailed several senior staffers to the panel. Among them are Meghan Mann, a top aide to White House Budget Director Peter Orszag, and Joshua Odintz, a senior tax official at the Treasury Department. Paul Weinstein, a veteran Democratic tax analyst, is on loan from Johns Hopkins University.
Despite the seeming enormity of the commission’s task, budget analysts say the panel doesn’t need a huge staff because both the basic problems and the mix of possible solutions has been known for years. Obama has asked it to come up with proposals that would, if added to proposals that he has already made, narrow the federal deficit from about $1.3 trillion last year to about $500 billion in 2015. He has also asked for proposals to tackle the much bigger long-term deficits that are projected as a result of soaring costs for Social Security and Medicare.
The panel’s hardest decisions are political ones – like reconciling Republican opposition
to higher taxes
with Democratic opposition to cuts in social spending
. Indeed, defenders of safety net programs recently criticized some commission members simply over the way they wanted to measure the government’s debt
But the basic strategic choices – cutting discretionary spending, cutting back on old-age entitlement benefits and raising taxes – have all been analyzed exhaustively for years by the Congressional Budget Office, the White House, outside think tanks and previous presidential commissions. Even though the deficit has soared into almost uncharted territory as a result of the financial crisis, most policy experts say the options for narrowing the gap have changed little and are well known.
Still, the Simpson-Bowles commission will eventually need to assess the impact of any potential proposals by running them through the complex budget modeling systems used in Congress and the executive branch. Though the Congressional Budget Office and the White House Office of Management and Budget are likely to provide most of that number-crunching power, the volume of work will still be limited by the number of options that panel members want to consider.What do you think about this story? Please comment below.