WASHINGTON -- The leaders of President Obama's debt commission drew national ire Wednesday for proposing sweeping cuts to federal programs, including Social Security. In an interview with The Huffington Post on Wednesday night, Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), one of 18 members of the commission, criticized what she described as a "right-leaning plan" from the panel's two co-chairmen, former Bill Clinton adviser Erskine Bowles and former senator Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.).
"As far as I'm concerned the proposal is dead on arrival and should be soundly rejected," Schakowsky told HuffPost in an after-hours phone call. There are a number of ways to achieve fiscal solvency, she said, without taking it out of the hides of Social Security beneficiaries.
Schakowsky acknowledged that tough choices must be made to tame the country's soaring deficit but said the proposed reduction in Social Security benefits and broad spending cuts for many federal operations are out of the question.
Simpson and Bowles said their report was only intended to incite discussion, while Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R - Texas) called it intentionally "provocative."
"It's an impractical beginning," said Schakowsky of the Bowles-Simpson proposal, which would, among other things, raise the retirement age and result in higher taxes for millions of middle-class Americans. "It's important to say what should not be on the table," she said, adding that the deficit should not be paid off by Americans who are already hurting:
"While I think everyone on the commission agrees that we're on an unsustainable path, we cannot be putting the deficit or the debt on the backs of ordinary people, particularly senior citizens. When we started this commission we said nothing is going to be done to benefits for current beneficiaries. Lo and behold, the proposal by the two co-chairs would lower the cost-of-living adjustment for all beneficiaries, something that would compound over the years to significantly lower the benefit for future beneficiaries. They're talking about raising the retirement age. None of the offsets they talk about would be helping lower income seniors. According to the experts, this proposal would put more elderly people into poverty, not fewer. And that is just a nonstarter.
Liberals have long complained that the commission is heavy on conservatives and likely to favor large cuts to social programs. (Indeed, Simpson furthered that perception when, in an email sent to the executive director of National Older Women's League this summer, he infamously compared Social Security to "a milk cow with 310 million tits.")
That political makeup aside, the panel would need 14 of its 18 members to agree on a plan before it can receive an up or down vote from Congress.
If public opinion is any barometer, that looks to be a long-shot. Schakowsky explains:
If the idea is that we have to come up with a proposal that gets us all the way to primary budget balance by 2015, and that we all can agree on how to do that - I'm skeptical of that. But I think we can make some progress in terms of reducing the debt over the next 20 years. And again, I think there are a number of things that we ought to be able to agree on, but I think it may be a more modest proposal.
Despite being "disappointed" by the proposal put forth by the chairmen, there are a number of areas where the Congresswoman believes the commission can agree.
"Everybody seems to be on the same page or a similar page when it comes to cuts in defense spending and some of the tax expenditures like outsourcing jobs overseas," she said. "But I think right now when we're at the highest gap between rich and poor in the United States of America since 1928, we have to steer absolutely clear of proposals that make that gap even larger."
(Indeed data from the Congressional Budget Office shows that the gap between the wealthiest Americans and middle- and working-class Americans has more than tripled in recent decades.)
The chairmen, meanwhile, deflect criticism with a universal disclaimer.
"We're not asking anybody to vote for this plan," said Bowles at the commission's unveiling on Capitol Hill Wednesday. "This plan is a starting point. It represents only Al and my thinking and no one else's. We have run it by the president's advisees. I think every member of the commission today said they thought it was a serious plan."
The New York Times's Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman poked fun at that statement Wednesday, when he argued in a post titled "Unserious People" that since rich people live longer, if the retirement age is raised, those who make the least will be paying for those who make the most.
Obama, predictably, has not taken a formal position on the proposal, stressing instead the need to listen to all perspectives.
"The only way to make those tough choices historically has been if both parties are willing to move forward together," he told reporters at a late-night news conference in Asia. "And so before anybody starts shooting down proposals, I think we need to listen, we need to gather up all the facts. I think we have to be straight with the American people."
Schakowsky said she hasn't ruled out compromise, but added that given the time constraints, she's "not too optimistic about a comprehensive plan."
She took to MSNBC last night to elaborate: