This editorial will appear in Sunday’s print edition.
President Obama says his federal deficit commission is designed to “rise above partisanship.” We’d be more hopeful if the panel also came with a guarantee of political courage.
Partisanship isn’t what killed a more promising proposal to address the government’s budget problems last month. It was timidity.
The Senate’s roll call on establishing a deficit commission with the power to send recommendations to Congress for an up-or-down vote was, in fact, decidedly bipartisan: 22 Democrats, 23 Republicans and one independent voted nay.
Lawmakers on both sides know the national debt isn’t going away with the recession, and they don’t want to have to fess up to the hard choices that face the country.
The return of economic growth will certainly ease the near-term deficits, but entitlement spending – Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security – is simply unsustainable.
By 2020, the national debt is projected to be 77 percent of the overall economy, the highest level since 1950. Averting a debt-fueled crisis will require deep cuts or significant tax increases – or perhaps both.
Obama himself has not offered a blueprint for closing the long-term budget gap. He’s giving his deficit commission until Dec. 1 to figure out how to better balance spending and tax collections within five years.
Headed by two veterans of bipartisan budget deals – former Republican Sen. Alan K. Simpson and former Clinton chief of staff Erskine B. Bowles – the commission has potential to get the country talking constructively about the deficit and to provide some political cover for lawmakers.
But will those lawmakers summon the political will to act? On Thursday, Obama said “everything is on the table” – suggesting he might be willing to back down from some of his own campaign promises. But Republican leaders promptly rejected consideration of any option that involves higher taxes.
Obama’s own party is also showing little enthusiasm. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi reluctantly said she’d bring recommendations to a floor vote – but only if the Senate did so first. Such tepid commitment at the outset doesn’t bode well for the panel’s success.
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla. – one of the authors of the original plan that vested greater powers with the deficit commission – told reporters: “We already have a commission to confront our debt. It’s called the United States Congress. If members of Congress aren’t up to that task, we don’t need a new commission; we need a new Congress.”
The budget will get fixed eventually. The only question is whether voters have to elect some new backbone to get the job done.