WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Everybody agreed at the U.S. fiscal commission’s first meeting on Tuesday that without change the United States is headed for fiscal ruin.
Now comes the hard part: Finding a solution among options bound to anger a significant number of Americans — raising taxes, cutting spending or, the mostly likely outcome, a painful mixture of both.
Members of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility
and Reform reached for rhetorical heights to describe the predicament Americans find themselves in after years of deficit spending and forecasts of more to come.
“An unsustainable path,” said Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke. “On a ruinous path,” said Republican Representative Jeb Hensarling. “This debt is like a cancer,” said commission chairman Erskine Bowles. “Catastrophic threat,” said former Fed Vice Chair Alice Rivlin.
The commission meeting provided a glimmer of the fireworks to come over how to bridge the partisan divide in Washington. President Barack Obama wants the commission’s recommendations by December 1.
Republicans want the Democrats’ recently approved healthcare overhaul to be on the table, questioning whether it would cut healthcare costs as advertised. “When we say ‘everything is on the table, does that mean the new healthcare law?” asked Republican Representative Dave Camp.
Democratic Senator Dick Durbin said the commission was not the place to “revisit the greatest hits of the healthcare debate” and that “we need to get beyond” attacks on the new law.
Commission co-chair Alan Simpson, a former Republican senator, told reporters afterward it was his impression from Obama that the healthcare law should be considered as part of the proceedings. “Everything is on the table,” he said.
Simpson peppered his comments throughout the session with the sort of disarmingly colorful comments that evoke his native Wyoming and made him a popular sound-bite machine for years on Capitol Hill.
Simpson, 78, said his constituents used to urge him, “Al, bring home the bacon,” meaning federal money. But now, he said, “The pig has died.”
He attacked right-wing critics who have accused the commission of being a “stalking horse for taxes,” and ranging off topic, said he considers abortion “a deeply personal decision” and that he has a cousin who is gay.
To reporters afterward, Simpson said the commission’s work is likely to be difficult, much like “giving dry birth to a porcupine.”
Bernanke laid out the grim options in a statement that opened the proceedings in a nondescript conference room in an obscure government building near the White House.
“The reality is that Congress, the administration and the American people will have to choose among making modifications to entitlement programs, such as Medicare and Social Security, restraining federal spending on everything else, accepting higher taxes or some combination thereof,” he said.
That gave way to the classic battle in Washington — spending versus taxes. “Spending is the culprit,” said Republican Representative Paul Ryan.
Democratic Representative Jan Schakowsky argued for spending for education and infrastructure and said a “short-term reduction in the deficit I think is the worst thing we could do for the economy.
Some commissions in Washington are able to make a mark, such as the panels that studied the September 11 attacks and the Iraq war. But there are just as many whose work has been ignored, a fact that was on the minds of members.
“We have to be willing to make the tough choices,” said Bowles, who was chief of staff to President Bill Clinton in the 1990s. “We are not a Republican or a Democrat, we’re Americans.”
Editing by Todd Eastham