For the last few weeks, members of Congress have been increasingly pushing for a bipartisan commission to tackle the nation's fiscal challenges. The impetus has been the need to raise the debt limit as the national debt rapidly approaches the $12 trillion statutory ceiling. Because legislation to raise the debt limit is must-pass, lawmakers are trying to tie commission creation to the legislative language. Senator Evan Bayh highlighted this issue in a letter to Majority Leader Harry Reid, which was co-signed by nine additional senators. The Blue Dog coalition of Democrats in the House also recently announced their support for a commission.
Last week, Budget Committee Chairman Senator Kent Conrad held hearings to discuss the formation of a bipartisan commission. He and ranking member Senator Judd Gregg would like a task force comprised of lawmakers and administration officials who would report their recommendations by the end of 2010, and then they would like a quick vote without any amendments after the fall elections. Senator Diane Feinstein and Senator John Cornyn have a competing proposal, which would create a permanent 15-member committee, made up mainly of outside experts. In the House, Congressman Jim Cooper and Congressman Frank Wolf have also proposed a one-time commission, in the Cooper-Wolf SAFE Commission Act (HR 1557).
The Concord Coalition has written about commissions in the past, and our Executive Director, Bob Bixby, has provided testimony on the matter. Just last month, we held an event with our Virginia Fiscal Advisory Committee debating the idea. We were thrilled to have a bi-partisan collection of Congressmen -- Jim Moran, Gerry Connolly, Cooper and Wolf -- attend the meeting.
Congressman Cooper said the only rule that holds fast in government accounting is that we must pay our interest every year, and that interest is growing alarmingly. Congressman Wolf warned of reports that the US might lose its AAA rating, which could force those interest costs even higher once the US loses its reputation as a good borrower. Congressman Connolly worried about the potential for this rising debt to cause a later contraction in the economy, as federal debts affect state budgets, and he lamented the punishment that voters typically dole out to the politicians who try to be fiscally responsible. When Congressman Moran spoke, he sounded a clarion call for a return to the fiscal restraint of the pre-2000 budget.
Yet, for all their agreement about the scope of the problem, these representatives did not agree whether a commission could solve it. Congressman Cooper and Congressman Wolf want a commission that leaves “everything on the table” for a year of public hearings followed by an up or down vote. Congressman Wolf feels that a commission is “the only way” to avert the oncoming fiscal crisis. Congressmen Moran and Connolly disagree, worrying that a commission “is not a panacea,” and fearing partisanship or push-back.
While Congress is looking more likely to enact legislation creating a commission, that isn't a done deal. It does seem that from our grassroots efforts, and most of our Fiscal Advisory Council deliberations, this step would be popular among those voters in the country who are focused on fiscal responsibility.
--Emily Goldman and Josh Gordon
Late Update: It looks like the White House might be warming to the commission idea too.