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Why Obama's latest bid to control national debt might not change anything

Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, co-chairs of President Obama's deficit commission, hope their final report will start an 'adult conversation' about the national debt. But members of Congress might have too much to lose politically to back the report.

By Staff Writer / December 1, 2010

Erskine Bowles (l.) watches former Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson speak at a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington Nov. 10. They are co-chairs of President Obama's bipartisan deficit commission.

Alex Brandon/AP/file

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Washington

The co-chairmen of the president’s debt commission, former Sen. Alan Simpson and former Clinton staffer Erskine Bowles, have released their final report, a bracing treatment of the nation’s looming fiscal crisis.

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Like the draft report released three weeks ago, the final version reduces deficits by $3.8 trillion by 2020. It calls for deep cuts in domestic and military spending beginning in 2012, lowers tax rates but eliminates or reduces many popular tax deductions, cuts Medicare benefits, and gradually raises the Social Security retirement age.

Changes in the final version addressed concerns raised over the draft proposal. Those include added protections for workers who would face difficulty with the higher retirement age and greater cuts in discretionary spending.

Aside from the co-chairs, four members of the commission have endorsed the final report: Sens. Kent Conrad (D) of North Dakota and Judd Gregg (R) of New Hampshire; David Cote, the Republican chairman of Honeywell International Inc.; and Alice Rivlin, Democratic former White House budget director under President Clinton.

“This is a moment of truth,” said Senator Conrad, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee. “The nation is headed for a fiscal cliff. We have to act. This is the time for us to pull together.”

Of those who have signed on, only Conrad will remain in elective office come January, as Senator Gregg is retiring. Conrad is up for reelection in two years, but has yet to announce if he will run. Aside from Conrad and Gregg, 10 other commission members are also members of Congress, five from each party, and have the most to lose personally by signing on to the controversial plan, if they hope to remain in office.

Thus, chances of securing the supermajority – 14 out of 18 commission members – needed to send the plan on to Congress for a vote appeared slim to none, even the co-chairs admit. The commission will vote on Friday, a two-day delay from the Dec. 1 deadline as the co-chairs seek to round up votes.

One member, Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D) of Illinois, is the only firm “no” so far, but other congressional members have expressed doubts about voting “yes.” If few members of Congress on the commission sign on, that would represent a blow to the co-chairs’ hope that at the very least, they have launched an “adult conversation” about the nation’s unsustainable fiscal path.

The basic outline of the objections echoes those expressed over the draft proposal: Republicans hate the tax increases, such as those proposed for Social Security. Democrats hate the spending cuts, including those in social safety net programs.

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