Even before its first official meeting, the bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform (a.k.a. the White House Deficit Commission), is suffering from an affliction common to Washington entities: abundant skepticism.
Conservatives call the effort to make deficit reduction recommendations a dog-and-pony show. Progressives fret about the free-market ideologues on the panel. Few imagine that anything produced will carry much weight -- after all, the final report is not legally binding.
Faced with a trust deficit before their initial meeting on Tuesday, committee members recently began what can best be described as a self-defense campaign. The two chairs -- former Sen Alan Simpson (R-Wyo) and former Clinton White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles -- took to Fox News for a joint appearance this Sunday. And on Monday, one of the top progressive figures on the panel, departing SEIU president Andy Stern, derided the "the Washington assassins of change" who are discrediting the panel.
"If this group of people reaches a conclusion on almost anything, it will mean something," Stern said, in an interview with the Huffington Post. "Forgetting me, these are not insignificant people. I would say that the most interesting thing is that publicly everyone has low expectations... Everybody's scared that we have meetings and everybody can't see what's going on because somebody may do something wrong. I would say my conversations with the people on the commission, everybody appreciates that this is really a bad problem."
Exactly how big a problem has become a source of contentious debate. In a winding conversation from his office next to Dupont Circle, Stern stressed that Congress (which he labeled "a failed experiment of fiscal responsibility") has to sober up to the reality that the financial path it was on is no longer sustainable. Waste needs to be eliminated, defense programs need to be un-bloated, the tax system needs simplification. Stern was warm to a proposal from Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Tex.) requiring that budgets have two-year windows and he spoke admiringly of Sen. Tom Coburn's (R-Okl.) campaign to eliminate earmarks. In fact, at the fourth positive mention of Coburn's name, the Huffington Post asked whether Stern and the archconservative Oklahoma Republican had begun hanging out on weekends.
"I wouldn't say that I hang out with him," Stern replied. "But I do have a notebook from him listing all the waste, fraud and abuse." (He then produced a two-inch think black binder entitled "$150 Billion in Discretionary Savings, Waste & Duplications in the Federal Bureaucracy.")
Even entitlement systems -- which are fiercely protected by progressives in any discussion of deficit reduction -- need to be reexamined, Stern said, before stressing that "there's a certain amount of money it needs to spend on safety nets and taking care of people who otherwise have issues they can't deal with." Most important of all was that all the recommendations had to be considered together. Taken alone, they won't work.
"There's not a debate about do we have to do something," he said. "There's not a debate about how serious is this; this is a catastrophe waiting to happen if nothing is done. But I think Congress has a long history of dumbing down big things into small things and I think there is a challenge here to get them [not to do that.]"
But not everyone is entirely convinced that big action is needed. While projections suggest the economy is on track for a historically high debt, the issue stems primarily from the decreased tax revenues during this recession. That recession, of course, is weakening. That the president would consider spending cuts at this juncture is problematic for recovery, progressive economists argue. That he would allow free-market conservatives a presidential-sanctioned platform to push for entitlement reform is troubling. Even more needless, they argue, is the energy being spent to curb a deficit crisis that they claim isn't a crisis.
"The frame of the debate is between those who think the witches have taken over the entire community and the whole lot of them should be burned and those who think there are only a few witches and burning just a few of them would be enough to appease the demons," said James Galbraith, the Lloyd M. Bentsen Jr. Chair in Government at the University of Texas. "There are a few of us operating safely removed from the bonfires who maintain there is no such thing as witchcraft."
On Tuesday, nevertheless, the deficit commission will begin an eight-month-long process to study, debate and ultimately chart a new fiscal path forward. Made up of both Republicans and Democrats, those fabled "Washington assassins of change" whom Stern laments are already convinced that the process will be political theater.
"If we're all going to give big speeches about Bush was more irresponsible than Clinton, Obama is bringing the country to its end, then let's all go home," Stern said in reply. "I have none of that sense at all."
By pushing the publication of its final findings until after the November elections, in fact, the commission is hoping to remove the politics of the midterm elections from the proceedings. "What is the cop-out about that?" Simpson asked Fox News's Chris Wallace when pressed whether or not having a pre-election rollout would diminish the findings. Indeed, if all goes as planned, Stern said, the commission's report will serve as a platform for all politicians going forward.
Success, as he defined it, would result if the report has "created enough momentum so that as we go into a presidential election in 2012 and everybody's talking about fiscal responsibility... For the conservatives, you can't be fiscally responsible and then say 'Despite the fact that all these Republican members of the committee, hypothetically, have voted for this, here's my plan.' And for President Obama, who obviously people want to box him in as running America's economy into the ground, it would be a very helpful tool I'm sure to have a report from a bipartisan group of people that outlines a way forward."
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