Fiscal Commission Chairs Gave Members Little To No Warning About Announcement

11/10/2010 04:57 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Sam Stein Senior Politics Editor, The Huffington Post

WASHINGTON -- One of the more peculiar elements of the White House deficit commission chairmen's decision to release their preliminary recommendations on Wednesday was the sheer timing of the announcement.

There was little to no notice that a press conference was to be held and a major document unveiled suggesting fairly drastic cuts to Social Security and Medicare in addition to major revisions in tax law. In fact, multiple staffers to lawmakers who serve on the commission itself say that they were left in the dark about the announcement that was made by the two chairs: former Sen. Alan Simpson and former White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles.

"Members didn't get a copy until they walked into that room," said a source who works with the commission. "And once we were there, the politicians said, 'If this is going to leak, you might as well get in front of it, put out a press release or hold a press conference."

"It definitely caught us off guard," said another.

"They announced, at the meeting today, as I understand it, that they were going to drop it today," said one source briefed on the commission meeting that preceded the press conference. "It was supposed to be a private session and then they said it would be a public announcement."

It wasn't that members, necessarily, weren't prepared for the contents. "We weren't totally surprised to see the paper," said one source who has worked with the commission. It was, rather, a surprise that so much of the paper would be made public. The result was that many of the key players in the deficit reduction conversation were left scrapping for information and the appropriate reaction. A White House press release on the matter, for instance, came several hours after news of the recommendations had been made public, despite the fact that the commission is administration-appointed. Key committee members, meanwhile, were forced to weigh in with vague support of the process proceeding and not, per se, recommendations for those leading the process.

Naturally, the unexpected maneuver by Simpson and Bowles sparked a bit of intrigue about the politics of the commission itself. And by Wednesday afternoon the prevailing theory was that the chairs had jumped ahead of fellow commission members for the express purpose of setting a benchmark for future negotiations.

Groups ideologically aligned with the report's findings appeared to have a heads-up, however. Third Way, a conservative Democratic group which called the paper "Third Way Proposed Reforms," was quickly out with a statement, though officials with the group stressed that they had no advance warning. The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, which is largely funded by hedge-fund billionaire Pete Peterson and has been waging a long campaign to cut Social Security called it "truly a remarkable plan" shortly after it was released.

But not everyone saw nefarious intentions in the timing of Wednesday's proceeding. For starters, the final results are set to be voted upon in early December -- a deadline that is fast approaching -- requiring that the conversation get started in haste. One staffer applauded the chairs for producing a document that didn't first leak to the press.

But there are two sides to that coin. And while Simpson and Bowles may have been able to dictate the rollout of their own work, by cutting media outreach that helped the recommendations receive tepid reviews at best. If early reaction is to be believed, the chairs will have a difficult time rounding up the 14 votes needed from the 18 members.

This Post Was Updated From An Earlier Version