The Senate’s opportunity to reduce the deficit

It should support a bipartisan commission to secure the country’s fiscal future.

One message from the Massachusetts election shake-up is that the federal deficit is a higher priority for voters than healthcare. Sixty-one percent of Republican Scott Brown’s supporters thought so, and sent him to the US Senate to say so. But the Senate doesn’t have to wait until Mr. Brown takes his seat. It has an opportunity to heed voters now.

On Tuesday, the Senate is expected to vote on a bill that creates an independent commission to help secure the federal government’s fiscal future. Like the blue-ribbon panel that pinpointed which US military bases to close, the fiscal commission would look at the politically charged subject of how to cut mounting federal deficits that may end up as a drag on the economy. 

Like the military commission, this one – if it passes Congress – would require lawmakers to vote up or down on its entire package of recommendations.

But the bill, sponsored by Democrat Kent Conrad and Republican Judd Gregg, is expected to fail. Republicans such as Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell will support a commission that considers only spending cuts – not tax increases. Some Democrats, meanwhile, fear likely cuts to popular entitlement programs: Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid. And lawmakers from both parties say voting for a bill that turns budget decisions over to a panel means they abdicate their fiscal role as an elected body.

Public concern about “fiscal care” is building, and not just in Massachusetts. Nationwide, Americans rank the deficit their No. 3 priority – behind jobs and national security but ahead of healthcare, according to a Jan. 10 poll by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal

The causes for the rising deficit today are many, with some people citing excess in spending while others pointing to a shortfall in the level of government taxes. But it’s tomorrow that’s the bigger worry. 

In another 30 years or so the federal government will spend more than twice as much as it raises in taxes – threatening America’s competitiveness and standard of living. The main driver for that will be spending on Medicare, as more babyboomers draw on that service for seniors.

The problem is so large that both Democrats and Republicans might need to swallow solutions that run counter to their normal political positions. That’s why a commission that looked only at spending cuts (à la Republicans) or shied away from entitlements (à la Democrats) would simply kick this can farther down the road. Everything has to be on the table, according to the leaders of a new independent commission on debt reduction. The commission was announced Monday and will be led by former Senate budget chairman Pete Domenici, a Republican, and Alice Rivlin, a Democrat and former White House budget director.

The commission proposed by Sens. Conrad and Gregg would relieve Congress of the political fallout from having to propose hard choices. But it would not, as lawmakers suggest, usurp their job in controlling the nation’s purse strings. They would still have to vote on the commission’s recommendations.

Pressure is mounting to do something about America’s bad spending habits – from the public, from foreign investors who hold US debt, and from experienced budget hands who are now out from under the pressure cooker of the Capitol dome. 

Should the Senate fail to pass this bill, President Obama will announce his own bipartisan commission, probably in Wednesday’s State of the Union address, when he wants to talk about deficit reduction. But Congress would not be obligated to vote on his panel’s recommendations, which is why the Senate, if it were serious about this issue, should beat him to it.

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