For a few, the latest plan for tackling the nation's huge debt problem is a "dose of fiscal sanity." President Obama, among others, took a cautious approach, saying the bipartisan panel should be able finish its work before anyone begins "shooting down" its draft. But many in official Washington couldn't hold back -- they reacted with horror to a package of painful cuts
designed to rein in the federal spending that has created a runaway national debt.
Do away with the treasured income tax write-off for mortgages? No way, they said, it's a slap at the middle class. Cut defense spending? Ever heard of the military-industrial complex?
And raise the early retirement age for Social Security to 64 and the full retirement to 68 (by mid-century) and eventually to 69? "This not a package I could support," said Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), a liberal member of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform
. That's the formal name of the deficit panel appointed by the White House and congressional leaders and tasked with issuing a final report on Dec. 1. Assistant Senate Majority Leader Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), another panel member, said parts of the preliminary plan were inspirational, but added that he hated other recommendations "like the devil hates hot water." AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka's went further: "The chairmen of the deficit commission just told working Americans to drop dead."
The best thing that Republican Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire could say about the recommendations -- really just ideas at this point -- was that they represented a "starting point." Yet, the 18-member commission has been at its work for more than eight months and is just weeks from its deadline.
The information that caused such a hubbub Wednesday was put out by the panel's two chairmen, Democrat Erskine Bowles and Republican Alan Simpson, as sort of a trial balloon. "We have harpooned every whale in the ocean, and some minnows," said Simpson, a former senator from Wyoming. In addition to slowing down spending on Social Security and Medicare, the proposals would shrink discretionary spending, simplify the tax code and cut some income tax rates to partially offset loss of the mortgage deduction. They would trim farm subsidies and gradually reduce retirement benefits for government workers and the military. Something for just about everyone. Even NPR would face the axe, losing its federal funding. The idea is to slash $3.8 trillion from projected budget deficits over the next decade in an effort to get a handle on a national debt that now stands at $13.7 trillion
, and growing.
The harsh reaction from special interests and their allies was not surprising. It is a Washington way of thinking -- in which one tries to kill a proposal before it gets out of the gate.
Simpson and Bowles need concurrence from at least 14 of their commission colleagues on all or parts of their plan before it goes anywhere. If they somehow get a deal, most of the recommendations would still have to be approved by a skeptical Congress. John Boehner, the presumed speaker of the House come January, withheld comment Wednesday. The current speaker, Nancy Pelosi, called the proposals "simply unacceptable." The liberal lobby and website MoveOn.org urged its members to fire up a phone-in campaign urging the White House to reject the plan.
Obama, who was in South Korea when the story broke, didn't do that. "We're going to have to make some tough choices. The only way to make those tough choices historically has been if both parties are willing to move forward together," he said. "So before anybody starts shooting down proposals, I think we need to listen, we need to gather up all the facts. I think we need to be straight with the American people. If people are, in fact, concerned about spending, debt, deficits and the future of our country, then they're going to need to be armed with the information about the kinds of choices that are going to be involved, and we can't just engage in political rhetoric."
Even in the first 24 hours, it was clear the Bowles/Simpson plan faces an uphill battle to even get seriously considered. Yet there were some lonely voices, calling for its serious consideration.
Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget
, said the plan "does it all," allowing time for the economy to strengthen, bringing down future deficits and debt and protecting the most disadvantaged.
Former Rep. Harold Ford, chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council
, a haven for moderate Democrats, said the preliminary recommendations "get to the meat of our long-term challenge: lowering our national debt. This is the dose of fiscal sanity we need."
The Concord Coalition
, a respected non-partisan watchdog, said the chairmens' plan should serve as a "sobering fiscal reality check." But will it? "Many people have been calling for a serious conversation about these issues," Concord Executive Director Robert Bixby said. "The bipartisan report now beginning to circulate will test whether that desire is real or simply an excuse for inaction."