’Supercommittee’ Getting Lots of Advice, but Path Forward isn’t Clear

Published Oct 25, 2011.

WASHINGTON — From trillion-dollar tax hikes to cutting the copper content in pennies, members of Congress are showering their colleagues on the deficit-reduction “supercommittee” with ideas. What they haven’t done, however, is offer a path to compromise between the partisan red lines on taxes and entitlement cuts that would give the committee a way to meet its target of trimming at least $1.5 trillion over the next decade. “The Senate Republicans took revenues off the table. And the House Democrats said, ’OK, Social Security and Medicare are off the table, too,’ “ said Diane Lim Rogers, chief economist with the Concord Coalition, a group that’s advocated a balanced federal budget for many years. “The table remains barren of a ’go big’ approach. Everything big has been taken off the table.” Other analysts are less pessimistic. “I know they are taking a hard look at this, and it’s clear some outside consensus is starting to form,” said Jason Peuquet, a policy analyst with the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. “The big question is whether the supercommittee has enough time to develop a comprehensive plan. That’s the next big obstacle.” Under the law passed in August that allowed the federal government to escape default and raise the debt ceiling, the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction has a Nov. 23 deadline to draft deficit-cutting legislation. Congress would then have until Dec. 23 to approve the committee’s recommendations on a yes-or-no vote, with no amendments and no Senate filibustering. If the process fails, automatic spending cuts of $1.1 trillion will begin Jan. 1, 2013. The supercommittee has met often in the last two months, but has been super-quiet about its work. The co-chairmen, Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., have bound their fellow members to silence so strictly that others in Congress are grumbling. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, for instance, urged the committee to open up and take more public testimony. Under the August debt ceiling law, other congressional committees were given an opportunity to submit recommendations to the six Democrats and six Republicans (drawn equally from the House and Senate) on the supercommittee. The House and Senate agriculture committees jointly promised $23 billion in savings on farm subsidies and promised to fill in the details by Nov. 1. The Senate Commerce, Science and Technology Committee, chaired by Texas Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison, urged the deficit panel to include a committee bill that would raise $6.5 billion to $10 billion by consolidating radio spectrum for emergency responders. The committee’s ranking Democrat, Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, also signed on to the recommendation. For most other committees, however, the recommendations were split on partisan lines. House Democrats on the government affairs committee said that ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, while letting the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts expire, would reduce future deficits by $7 trillion. Coins and currency attracted House Republicans on the financial services committee. They recommended that the value of the metal content in pennies and nickels be no more than the coins’ face value. Over 10 years, that would save $274 million on pennies and $159 million on nickels. Rep. David Schweikert, R-Ariz., held back on recommending a measure he is co-sponsoring with Hensarling that would compel the government to stop printing dollar bills. Using $1 coins, which can last 30 years, would save the government nearly $6 billion over 30 years, Schweikert said. Because of Hensarling’s position on the supercommittee, a lobbying group of bingo parlors, foresters, laundromats and others opposed to the bill released a poll showing that more than 70 percent of the public opposes doing away with the $1 bill. A spokeswoman for Schweikert said the supercommittee “already has a lot on its plate,” and that he would not be urging it to adopt his measure. Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee urged repeal of President Barack Obama’s 2010 health care overhaul, along with increasing Medicare’s eligibility age and premiums. While the two parties showed how hard it may be to compromise on health care and taxes, there were signs of agreement in other areas of federal spending that could add up to substantial savings. Consensus seems to be forming around squeezing federal employees’ wages and benefits. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House government affairs committee, said that a two-year salary freeze should be extended through 2015 and that federal workers should be required to pay considerably more for pensions and health insurance. “Federal employees are in trouble no matter what,” said the Concord Coalition’s Rogers. “Most Americans who don’t work for the federal government assume federal employees get paid too much.” Issa said that the federal workforce should be cut by 10 percent through attrition, and that new hires should be put into retirement savings plans rather than pensions. Taken together, he said, the reforms would save the government $375 billion over the next 10 years. Issa’s Senate counterparts want the pay freeze extended through 2013, along with higher employee contributions for pensions, for a total savings of $57 billion to $58 billion. The mortgage market would change under several proposals. House Republicans picked up on Obama’s proposal to raise the fees for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac federal mortgages. The Republicans also want to increase federal flood insurance premiums so the program pays for itself. Those ideas would save more than $32 billion. Democrats and Republicans remain far apart on energy policy. House Republicans, echoing Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s economic plan as a GOP presidential candidate, want to open federal lands to oil and gas drilling. Democrats want higher taxes on oil companies.