Deficit Commission at a Stalemate as Time Runs Out
Policy + Politics

Deficit Commission at a Stalemate as Time Runs Out

With just two months left before President Obama’s bipartisan fiscal commission is supposed to recommend proposals for avoiding a fiscal train wreck, the odds of reaching a consensus by the Dec. 1 deadline are getting slimmer. Panel members from both parties say they haven’t agreed on either broad goals or narrow proposals, and won’t begin any real discussions until after the midterm elections on Nov. 2.

“No one will declare themselves about whether something is good, bad or indifferent,’’ said Andrew Stern, former president of Service Employees International Union and a panel member. “We’re in the final run to Election Day, and everyone wants to be in charge of their campaigns.”

That doesn’t mean the panel can’t hammer out compromises just before its deadline, or that a core group of the panel’s members won't issue a report on its own. But time is running short. The 18-member panel isn’t even planning to meet again until Nov. 10, and several members say few serious discussions are likely to take place even behind closed doors. Twelve of the members are House or Senate lawmakers, split evenly between Republicans and Democrats, and all of them have been reluctant to even discuss ideas that might violate party orthodoxy.

After a desultory public meeting on Wednesday, dominated by presentations about “performance budgeting,’’ the commission adjourned for a six-week break. When they convene again, they will have three weeks – including Thanksgiving weekend – to agree on all their recommendations. “You’re going to have a lot to do when you come back,’’ committee co-chairman Erskine Bowles told the other panel members.

But at the moment, members haven’t agreed on the basics. Among the many unsettled questions: Will the panel merely propose measures to reduce short-term deficits by 2015, or will it try to tackle the big long-term issues like Social Security, Medicare and tax reform?

The one point of agreement between several key Republicans and Democrats dealt with the advantage of putting the federal government on a two-year budget, instead of the current annual budget process. Congress would set the budget in odd-numbered years, when members aren’t running for election, and focus on oversight in even-numbered years. The idea has been popular with conservative Republicans, including panel members like Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, but it got a strong endorsement on Wednesday from Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., chairman of the Senate Budget Committee.

But agreements on actual deficit-reduction proposals remain far out of sight, though longtime budget analysts can recite a slew of options as easily as reciting nursery rhymes and can run computer projections in a matter of hours. In theory, the panel could make almost all its decisions in the last day or two of its existence. In practice, the political feuding will be hard to overcome.

“I don’t think anybody’s asked for an extension of time,’’ Stern said. “The thing that’s lacking is courage.”

Bowles, a Democrat, and co-chairman Alan K. Simpson, a former Wyoming Republican senator, want to tackle big-ticket long-term issues like the future of Social Security and $1 trillion worth of money-draining tax breaks. “I think you will see some very bold proposals come out of this commission,’’ Bowles predicted after the meeting on Wednesday.

But a broad array of labor unions and senior citizens’ groups is lobbying fiercely against any cuts in Social Security. And Republicans have shown no hint of supporting tax increases of any kind.

Adding to the difficulty, liberal groups are furious that Simpson recently wrote in an email that Social Security was like “acow with 310 million tits.” Just before the meeting on Wednesday began, protesters from the National Organization for Women delivered a big basket of baby-bottle nipples to Simpson.

As if that weren’t enough, the Associated Press reported on Tuesday that the Federal Bureau of Investigation was questioning Stern about his activities in 2006 as president of the Service Employees International Union. Citing anonymous sources who had been interviewed by the F.B.I., the AP reported that agents were looking into a book advance Stern received as well as the salary for an S.E.I.U. leader who allegedly hadn’t worked.

Stern, who attended the panel’s meeting, denied he was the target of any investigation. “I’ve never been questioned about these issues, nor has my lawyer, nor has my union,’’ he said. Bowles said he hopes to produce a list of “straw men,’’ hypothetical plans to cut spending and raise tax revenues, which the panel can start debating in earnest after Nov. 2.

But the panel’s ability to reach a consensus isn’t likely to be any greater than the ability of Congress. Under the panel’s charter, any recommendation has to have the support of 14 of the 18 members. That means the panel’s six Republican lawmakers can block any proposal for higher taxes, and the six Democrats can block any proposal to trim Social Security benefits.

That seems more unlikely now than it did when the panel was first formed in February.