On February 18, President Obama created the “National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform,” a bipartisan 18-member panel of senators, representatives, and other luminaries. Co-chaired by Erksine Bowles (a former Chief of Staff to Bill Clinton) and Alan Simpson (a former Republican senator) the commission was charged with “identifying policies to improve the fiscal situation in the medium term and to achieve fiscal sustainability over the long run… including changes to address the growth of entitlement spending.”
At the time, little faith was placed in the ability of the debt commission to tackle the nation’s problems. These sort of bipartisan sit-downs are a nice bit of political ritual, but they’re mostly ceremonial. If a policy consensus exists prior to the commission being formed, then the commission will rubber stamp that consensus; if no consensus exists, the commission will return a mealy-mouthed report that avoids saying anything disagreeable…or useful.
As there was no consensus in Washington as to what should be done about budget deficits, it was expected that the commission, after much deliberation, would return something bland and unhelpful.
Therefore it was with no small measure of shock that on November 10th, weeks ahead of the commission’s December deadline, the chairs of the commission released their own proposal. Bold, yet practical, this was not the bowl of mushy platitudes and truisms that cynics had been conditioned to expect. The proposal began a serious discussion in Washington circles as to how the nation should get its fiscal house in order.
The broad strokes laid down by the co-chairs proposal are an excellent blend: fiscally significant, but politically feasible, detailed, yet flexible and open to negotiation. Broaden the tax base, make the code more efficient, and lower rates. Cut $200 billion from discretionary spending, half from the military and half from other programs. Raise the SS retirement age and make the program solvent. Curb the growth of federal spending on health care.
The co-chairs’ approach to cuts is to make many small reductions across a wide range of programs. Where the chairs make big ticket cuts, they target appropriately: reducing the federal workforce and curbing its pay growth, eliminating earmarks, demanding greater accountability in defense spending, belatedly pulling Cold War forces out of Europe, and slashing procurement of the military’s white elephants, like the V-22 Osprey, the F-35, and the F-22.
The commission’s final report, released on December 1, was a further improvement over the co-chairs proposal. The new language suggests that a higher share of discretionary cuts should come from military spending, and reduces the tax exemption on employer health care spending, both of which are intelligent moves (military spending is much larger than non-military discretionary spending, making it easier to cut, and the employer health care tax exemption is unnecessary under ObamaCare).
The commission’s report also brings concrete detail to improving the U.S. budgetary process, including the establishment of separate caps on military and non-military discretionary spending, as well as the creation of a permanent non-partisan body tasked with making budget cut suggestions to future congresses.
There is still plenty of room to nitpick. Personally, I am vehemently opposed to taxing capital gains at the same rate as income, want to see a little more courage on raising the retirement age, and would like a more concrete vision of how health care costs are going to be reduced. But no one is ever going to get 100 percent of what they want. The final vote of 11-7 in favor of the plan is revealing. The commission needed 14 votes out of 18 to submit a formal recommendation to Congress, and so in a sense it has failed, but the solid majority of 11 votes it has secured speaks to the breadth of the consensus the commission was able to achieve, as does the bipartisanship of its support: of the seven who voted against, three were Democrat, three were Republican, and the seventh was a union boss. 14 votes had always been a pipe dream: the proposal sets the balance on fiscal retrenchment exceedingly well. It creates a plan for cutting spending that doesn’t interfere with the short-term need for stimulus. It sets the right trade-off between tax increases, spending cuts, and reform. It spreads the pain of debt reduction evenly across society, raising taxes on the lower and middle class, but slashing government handouts to the wealthy. It provides a large menu of specific cuts and tax changes for Washington to mull over. In short, it does exactly what was hoped of it: create a practical and balanced starting point for more intensive negotiations on our nation’s fiscal path.
No one is perfectly happy with what the debt commission has produced — such is the nature of politics and compromise. Nonetheless, this proposal is a pleasant surprise, and should be acted upon.