With the White House and congressional leaders hanging back from some of the most politically explosive budget issues, ad hoc groups of lawmakers and experts are pressing for action on the long-term deficit. So far they have little to show for it.
In two appearances on Capitol Hill Tuesday, Democrat Erskine Bowles and Republican Alan Simpson, the co-chairmen of President Obama’s bipartisan deficit commission, launched “The Moment of Truth” campaign to drum up support for their panel’s politically-unpalatable recommendations, while the “Gang of Six” senators continued to try to hammer out a legislative proposal drawn from the commission’s approach.
But amid the flurry of activity and media attention, a key underlying question remains: Does President Obama and lawmakers who talk with growing alarm about the nation’s deteriorating fiscal condition, have the will to take the politically perilous steps to do something about the $1.5 trillion to $1.6 trillion annual deficit and the staggering long term debt? The jury is out.
“To bring this through an election cycle with a third of our members up and in the House where everyone is up for election makes it a very daunting task,” Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill, the Democratic whip and a member of the bipartisan Gang of Six, said in an interview.
The Illinois lawmaker was quick to note that he backs the report of the commission he served on, although he disagrees with some of its prescriptions that called for a mix of steep spending cuts, entitlement reform and overhauling the tax code to achieve nearly $4 trillion in deficit reduction through 2020.
Durbin is not about to oversell the prospects for its enactment into law. “I am trying to be realistic about this and there is this notion that somehow if we can agree on the deficit commission, this should be easy. It is not,” he said. “We have gone beyond the theoretical. We are now dealing with the reality of real live politicians with their offices on the line. And, equally, if not more important, their values on the line. That’s not easy.”
Still, Bowles, the former White House chief of staff in the Clinton administration, and Simpson, the former Wyoming senator, are determined to keep the heat on. Yesterday, before the Senate Budget Committee, Bowles said: “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.”
The ever-colorful Simpson said of folks at their kitchen tables around the country: “They know that if you spend more than you earn, you lose your butt. And they know that if you spend a buck and borrow 40 cents of it, you must be stupid. And they've got it figured out that this government is stupid to borrow 40 cents for every buck you spend.”
Those sobering messages were reiterated later in the day before a packed Senate hearing room when Bowles and Simpson launched the “Moment of Truth Project,” an initiative that aims to keep up the pressure for action on the fiscal commission’s proposals on a bipartisan basis. Five of the six members of the Gang of Six spoke, including Senators Tom Coburn, R-Okla., Budget Committee chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, Mark Warner, D-Va., and Durbin. They uniformly praised the commission’s work and stressed the urgent need for action. (The sixth member is Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga.)
Warner and Chambliss trekked to Richmond on Monday to begin a series of events to try to begin to win over the public on the need for tough medicine.
Poll numbers show voters are not embracing changes in programs that benefit them—such as raising the retirement age for Social Security benefits—and the senators recognize they must reverse such sentiments and persuade citizens to lobby their lawmakers to act. It’s a tall order.
Almost 8 in 10 people say Republicans and Democrats should reach a compromise on a plan to reduce the federal budget deficit to keep the government running, a Bloomberg National Poll shows. At the same time, lopsided margins oppose cuts to Medicare, education, environmental protection, medical research and community-renewal programs. While Americans say it’s important to improve the government’s fiscal situation, among the few deficit-reducing moves they back are cutting foreign aid, pulling U.S. troops out of Afghanistan and Iraq, and repealing the Bush-era tax cuts for households earning more than $250,000 a year.
When asked about polls that show majorities opposed to changes in Social Security, Medicare and other entitlement programs, Durbin said: “They don’t [want to sacrifice]. That’s not surprising. Those of us who are in this business know this very well: any program that you are aware of and affects you is one that you want to protect.”
In a panel discussion on the fiscal commission’s work, David Gergen, who has served four presidents, stressed the need for bipartisan action and cited the 1983 deal to save Social Security that was hammered out by President Reagan and House Speaker Tip O’Neil, D-Mass., as a case study. By contrast, he faulted Obama for not doing enough. “You can’t lead from the side,” he said.
Obama and House and Senate GOP and Democratic leaders are focused on ways to cut domestic spending in the current fiscal year, and have put off discussions about long-term debt reduction and entitlement reform until later. Obama has said that while he disagrees with some of his fiscal commission’s recommendations, the report that was issued in December could be used as a “framework” for future discussions.. Bowlessaid in an interview that he was not impressed with the battle between Republicans, who want to reduce domestic discretionary spending by about $61 billion, and Democrats who would accept about $10 billion in such cuts “This is all about politics now because I haven’t met anybody here on the left or the right that doesn’t see the arithmetic: a $1.6 trillion deficit. If you get rid of all domestic discretionary spending, you still have a trillion dollar deficit. We have a big problem. If we are going to address it we have to spread the sacrifice among everybody,” he said.
In a speech today, Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y. urged the admininistration and Congress to “hit the reset button on the debate” and look at a range of spending reductions, revenue raisers and mandatory spending cuts. “If we are serious, then we need to scour all parts of the budget that contribute to the deficit, not just the parts of the budget that some of us don’t like.”
As the debate over the immediate impasse grows more heated, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., blistered Obama for not providing leadership. “Why are we doing all this when the most powerful person in these negotiations — our president — has failed to lead this debate or offer a serious proposal for spending and cuts that he would be willing to fight for,” the freshman senator said on the Senate floor speech Tuesday. He was just as tough on the Republicans whose proposal, he said, “blindly hacks the budget with no sense of our priorities or of our values as a country.”
The takeaway from the temerity of a freshman senator to attack the president is that politically vulnerable lawmakers on the ballot next year, including Manchin, are not about to fall in line behind a budget proposal that they see as harming their re-election prospects.
White House press secretary Jay Carney, when asked to respond to Manchin’s critique, said: “The President of the United States put forth a budget -- so far the only budget we've seen, fiscal year 2012 -- that contains within it a five-year freeze on non-security discretionary spending, the result of which is a $400 billion cut over 10 years. The overall budget produces a trillion dollars in savings over 10 years. His leadership and seriousness about the need to live within our means…is quite clear.”
Still, Obama, who faces his own tough re-election fight next year, has kept a distance from the commission’s recommendations. He gave it a lukewarm review in his State of the Union address on Jan. 25, saying, “I don’t agree with all their proposals, but they made important progress.”
“We are all hoping that the president at the appropriate time will step up and do what presidents are supposed to do—which is lead on the issue and tell us the direction to go—and I think he will find a lot of Republicans willing to follow,” Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the GOP conference chairman, said in an interview with The Fiscal Times last week.
Simpson agrees. “He’ll come when it is time to come, but he’ll come,” he said in an interview. “Because when you are the president, you are the leader and you got to lead, and he will lead. It will be his timing and his judgment. I don’t know when it will come or when the tipping point will be for him but he will be there. Because if he doesn’t, it [this effort] ain’t going anywhere.”