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Obama Now Owns a Deficit Commission -- And Senator Simpson

04/22/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

On Thursday President Obama signed an executive order creating a National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform.

This deficit commission is based on an idea promoted by two Senators, Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) and Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), which would have required the Congress to vote on their budget-cutting recommendations in a "fast-track," undemocratic up-or-down vote with no amendments and little opportunity for debate.

Warning of the dangers of Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus charged that the Conrad-Gregg legislative version of the deficit commission "painted a big red target on Social Security and Medicare. That's what this commission is all about. It's a big roll of the dice for Social Security and Medicare."

Undaunted by these warnings, President Obama pushed to get the Senate to pass the Conrad-Gregg commission Senate Republicans, some of whom sponsored the legislation, refused to vote for it -- so Obama is doing something similar by executive order.

So what should the 60 organizations and many concerned citizens who opposed the Conrad-Gregg version of this commission think about the Obama version?

One very bad sign: The president announced that the Republican co-chair of this bipartisan commission would be former Senator Alan Simpson, who coined the derogatory term "greedy geezers" to justify his proposals to cut the Medicare program. Simpson hated defenders of Social Security and Medicare so much that he tried as Senator to attack and intimidate AARP, holding hearings that could have affected the senior groups tax status. A May 4, 1995 AP story reported then-Representative (now Senator) "Ron Wyden called Simpson's behavior classic scapegoating and said Simpson is trying to cover up Republican efforts to cut Medicare by discrediting AARP."

Bill Scher's post on Thursday about the Simpson pick refreshes our memories about the aggressive role that then-Senator Simpson played in pushing for cuts to Social Security -- and attacking AARP. All over Washington today organizations that care about the elderly are warning that this commission could easily turn into a "runaway train" that could do great damage to Social Security and Medicare. The appointment of Alan Simpson gives no relief to those concerns.

Now before I get pegged as a liberal who doesn't care about the fiscal health of my nation, let me make it clear that I am in favor of getting the deficit under control. As many recent studies have shown, that deficit (and resulting debt) are due to the profligate tax cuts for the wealthy under George Bush, the Medicare Part D program and two wars that were launched with no worry about paying for them. And the massive recession has hit tax revenues while requiring that Obama launch a crucial stimulus program that kept the world from plunging into a second Great Depression.

On Wednesday, a day before he shifted to the deficit commission, President Obama reiterated how important that stimulus spending has been. And he made the case for spending more money (without balancing it with program cuts or tax increases) to get unemployment down and jobs growing again. One problem is that premature focus on deficits chokes off economic recovery.

Another thing to worry about: The Obama Commission could reinforce the Simpson/conservative fixation on cutting Social Security and Medicare -- even though Social Security is now paying for itself and providing extra funds to finance the deficit -- and even though the Obama administration is rightly trying to reform the whole health care system which is driving Medicare costs. While Obama is trying to reform Medicare without cutting benefits -- conservatives like Simpson want to slash benefits.

Progressives who agree that the deficit is a long-term problem can and must make the case for protecting and improving Social Security and Medicare benefits, while demanding that the nation and this Obama commission focus on reforming the health care system.

There is another job progressives need to take up: defending the original Obama vision for expanded public investment to make the economy prosper for everyone, including unemployed workers.

Here's the big danger: the Obama deficit commission could find enough budget cuts and revenue just to get the deficit down to their three percent of GDP target over time. But that would leave nothing for the Obama investment agenda. Despite Obama's campaign rhetoric, it is pretty clear that this deficit commission will prioritize any new revenues and spending cuts for deficit reduction.

We need to make the case for that more expansive strategy: finding the appropriate revenues (and defense cuts) to both reduce the deficit and expand the investments in good, green jobs, public infrastructure, job training and the next generation of energy-efficient technologies that candidate Obama talked about so eloquently on the campaign trail.

So if we want them to protect and strengthen Social Security and Medicare and expand public investment to build a productive economy, we are going to need a collective effort to make the case very forcefully.

Is President Obama on our side in this effort?

On Wednesday, Obama went beyond defending the stimulus, to remind Americans of his original vision for the economy.

Progressives, read this presidential speech and get to work fighting for this vision of a federal budget that works:

We knew when we came into office that it wasn't enough simply to solve the immediate crisis before us. We knew that even before the crisis hit, we had come through what some people are calling the "lost decade" -- a period where there was barely any job growth, and where the income of the average American household declined. This is before the recession, over the course of the decade, the average American household, they saw their incomes decline even as the cost of health care and college tuition were skyrocketing, had reached record highs. The prosperity was built on little more than a housing bubble and on financial speculation -- people maxing out on their credit cards, taking out home equity loans.

We can't go back to that kind of economy. That's not where the jobs are. The jobs of the 21st century are in areas like clean energy and technology, advanced manufacturing, new infrastructure. That kind of economy requires us to consume less and produce more; to import less and export more. Instead of sending jobs overseas, we need to send more products overseas that are made by American workers and American business. And we need to train our workers for those jobs with new skills and a world-class education.

Other countries already realize this. They're putting more emphasis on math and science. They're building high-speed railroads and expanding broadband. They're making serious investments in clean energy because they want those jobs.

And America cannot stand still in the face of this challenge. We can't afford to put our future on hold. So that's why a big part of the Recovery Act has been about investing in that future. Yes, it created jobs now. Yes, it created business opportunities now. But more importantly, it's laying the foundation for where we need to go. . .

We're also making sure that our nation has an infrastructure that's built to compete in the 21st century. So we now have projects in 31 states that are laying the ground for the first high-speed rail network in the United States of America. I mean, for years, Japan and Europe have had high-speed rail. China has got about 40 times as many projects that have been going on, on this front. We're playing catch-up. We shouldn't be. . . .

In no area is this more important than in energy. Because of the Recovery Act, we have finally jumpstarted the clean energy industry in America, and made possible 200,000 jobs in the clean energy and construction sectors. . . .

So that's our future. That's what's possible in America. . . So our work is far from over, but we have rescued this economy from the worst of this crisis. And slowly, in new factories and research facilities and small businesses, the American people are rebuilding a better future. And we will continue to support their efforts. We will leave our children an economy that is stronger and more prosperous than it was before.

Now that's a vision worth fighting for. We have to show Americans that, with progressive revenues that get the wealthy and corporations to pay their fair share, we can revive the economy, protect Social Security and Medicare, and invest in America's future -- while reducing the long-term deficit. Don't accept anything less.