Critical government services have been shut down for over a week, federal employees and contractors are going without pay, and the nation is fast approaching a potentially catastrophic default on its obligations. But instead of addressing these problems, the House Republican leadership now wants to appoint a committee (termed a "working group") to recommend ways of reducing the deficit -- without raising any revenues. The proposal -- which the House will vote on later today -- is deeply disappointing.
Not only does the legislation do nothing to reopen the government or avoid default, delaying badly needed action on these fronts while the working group talks. It doesn't even set up meaningful deficit reduction discussions -- unlike the 2011 supercommittee, its focus is to include only spending cuts and not revenues.
The bill directs the working group to recommend "reforms in direct spending programs" -- in other words, budget cuts in Medicare, Social Security, Medicaid, SNAP (food stamps) and other such programs -- without recommendations to rein in even a single unproductive tax break used by special interests or corporations with well-connected lobbyists or to consider any other revenue-raising measures.
The working group could, for example, propose trimming Social Security's cost-of-living adjustments or increasing Medicare's premiums and co-payments, but not an increase in the amount of earnings subject to the Social Security payroll tax. That is hardly a recipe for a fair and balanced deficit-reduction plan.
In short, this is yet another measure through which House Republicans seek to look reasonable and to deflect criticism, while failing to move off their unbalanced agenda or lift their ransom demands.
Moreover, we have been down the "committee" road before, and it led to a dead end. The Budget Control Act of 2011 established the so-called supercommittee to identify more than $1 trillion in deficit-reduction measures. The supercommittee failed to agree, however, and meat-axe sequestration cuts in both defense and non-defense discretionary spending took effect as a result.
And, it should be noted the House and Senate both passed budgets back last spring, creating an opportunity for a discussion on budget priorities. Despite efforts by Senate Democrats to initiate a conference to negotiate a budget agreement, Republicans have rejected these overtures. If there is now a desire to negotiate, creating a new process with a new working group is not the answer; it's only a diversion from the task at hand.
The appropriate step now is not another diversionary tactic, but for the House to pass a clean continuing resolution and an increase in the debt ceiling. And this bill isn't just unhelpful -- it could actually harm the economy because it would push off action on the shutdown and the debt limit while the working group talked.
Finally, it would affirm that it's acceptable to hold the economy hostage over demands that a faction of one political party cannot otherwise win.