Amid the daily political infighting on Capitol Hill, some high-profile Republicans are feeling a renewed need for bipartisanship on one thing: doing something about the government’s $33.7 trillion-and-rising debt.
Their solution? A commission made up of both Democrats and Republicans that would come up with ways to improve the budget picture — and provide political cover for lawmakers to vote up-or-down on ideas to do that.
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) and eight other senators unveiled their bipartisan commission bill last week. New House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) has also talked up the idea of a commission, going so far as to mention it in his inaugural speech after becoming the House speaker. In an interview on CNBC, Romney, who introduced similar bills in 2019 and 2021, acknowledged the resemblance of the idea to past bipartisan negotiations.
“The process is better, the urgency is greater, and I think as a result you’re going to see people rally around this,” he said.
The bill would set up a 16-member commission of elected officials and experts to find ways to stabilize the debt in relation to the size of the U.S. economy over 15 years, and improve the financial outlook of the trust funds behind Social Security, Medicare and some other federal programs. Those recommendations would be due by May 1, 2025. Any changes to taxes or to big-ticket entitlement programs would likely be politically costly, so the bipartisan aura imparted to the decisions is another advantage of having a panel.
The bill would not, however, require the plans created by the commission to balance the budget by a specific date, presumably because the combination of spending cuts or tax increases needed to do that would be too big.
But there’s deep skepticism among Democrats and their allies that a similar effort now, in an even more polarized Washington than previous efforts, would work.
Democrats have not forgotten the last time there were calls for a bipartisan “grand bargain” to combine some tax increases with some entitlement spending cuts, between 2010 and 2012. Nothing came of several bipartisan efforts, including a presidential commission, a special congressional committee, and direct talks between a Democratic president and Republican House speaker.
“Evidently, the repeated failure of ideas does not put an end to them in Congress,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) told HuffPost.
Dean Baker, senior economist with the liberal Economic Policy Institute, said Democrats have little reason to trust Republicans, especially after the GOP reneged on a debt ceiling deal and have toyed with impeaching President Joe Biden over questionable allegations.
“They [have] zero trust in the Republican Party,” Baker said in an email. “Republicans want cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and other social programs, but they want the Democrats to take the heat for it. There are no longer any prominent Democrats foolish enough to make that deal.”
Those radioactive levels of skepticism have not kept Republicans from floating the idea on both sides of the Capitol and pointing out the need to at least slow the pace of debt accumulation.
But while rising interest rates are making the U.S. debt load harder to maintain and raise the risk of a financial crisis, the history of previous attempts to use commissions or committees to solve the budget problem does not bode well. To look back:
- 2010: Bowles-Simpson. The most high-profile effort, and the one that probably came closest to success, was 2010’s presidential committee led by former White House chief of staff under Bill Clinton, Erskine Bowles and former Wyoming GOP senator Alan Simpson. They proposed a tax reform that would raise more revenues and changes that would cut Medicare and Social Security, including raising the eligibility age. While the ideas had majority support among committee members, they did not have the needed supermajority; and the three House Republican representatives, Reps. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), Dave Camp (R-Mich.) and Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), voted as a bloc against it ― the only one of the five different groups appointed by congressional leaders and President Barack Obama to all vote together.
- 2011: Super Committee. Created by a debt limit deal reached between Obama and House Republicans, the panel of House and Senate members in 2011 were tasked with finding $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction to avoid automatic budget cuts from going into effect in 2012, a presidential election year. After months of talks, mostly behind closed doors, the committee closed up shop without agreement, and the across-the-board budget cuts took effect in 2012, with both parties blaming the other.
- 2011: Obama-Boehner talks. Ahead of the need to raise the debt ceiling in the summer of 2011, Obama and then-House Speaker John Boehner engaged in back channel talks that also aimed at a “grand bargain”-type package. In his book, “On the House,” Boehner described it as $1.2 trillion in spending cuts for $800 billion in new tax revenues and tax reform. He said it fell apart at the end when the White House wanted more revenues.
Why would another panel come to a different end?
“Well, it will be different people. That’s one thing,” Romney told HuffPost last week. “And the urgency is even greater with the amount of debt we have and the interest we’re paying.”
And previous panels didn’t manage expectations, said Rep. Jodey Arrington (R-Texas), chairman of the House Budget Committee.
“They didn’t define success in a way that it can be achieved,” he said.
“Now, listen, there’s still a low probability of success and it’s still a big challenge to get a bipartisan outcome,” Arrington said. But he said if a panel just agrees on the causes of the deficits and raises public awareness about those, it would be helpful.
“If all we do is that, I think that’s success.”
Republicans point to spending, and particularly spending on entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare, as the drivers of the debt. Democrats point to a series of big tax cuts, such as those made in 2001 and 2003, passed on a temporary basis but later made permanent, as the culprit.
Another round of temporary individual tax cuts, passed in 2017 as part of a GOP bill to overhaul the corporate tax system, are set to expire in 2025, as are subsidies for health insurance plans under Obamacare. Both are big ticket items that could be trimmed to ease the deficit but carry political risk.
And in 2033, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, Social Security revenues are set to fall short of spending, triggering automatic cuts in benefits unless the law is changed.
Getting ahead of the Social Security debate may be one reason why Republicans want to see a commission. The potential for an across-the-board cut in benefits could make a tax hike to prevent that much more palatable. In 1983, when Social Security was close to having to use general funds instead of its own dedicated taxes in order to avoid a cut in benefits, Congress raised payroll taxes and the eligibility age as a solution.
Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said the politics, particularly of Republicans and taxes, has been what has kept past efforts from succeeding. Van Hollen was a member of the Super Committee.
“The Republicans have this habit of wanting to hide their preferences behind closed doors and behind commissions because they don’t want to take public responsibility for it,” he told HuffPost.
Ultimately, Van Hollen said, the problem is not the process.
“This always comes down to a matter of political will. It doesn’t come down to building a better mousetrap, a better contraption,” he said. “It ultimately requires people to make tough decisions, and that requires political will.”
And some Democrats have long memories.
Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), who was on the Bowles-Simpson commission, said, “Take a look at the roll call on Bowles-Simpson. Look for all the fiscal conservatives and look how they voted.”
“It didn’t work then,” he noted.