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Political posturing begins on commission to tackle fiscal crisis

Tuesday, January 26, 2010; A14

BETTER LATE, we suppose. President Obama, on a Saturday afternoon more than a year into his presidency, issued a statement saying that "I strongly support" legislation for a commission to tackle the nation's fiscal problems. If he does, you've got to wonder where that strong support has been for the past year. There may not be enough votes for a commission, and the absence of presidential elbow grease surely has not helped create any. We hope Mr. Obama can make a difference now -- and that Saturday's statement is not the last word from the White House.

Unaddressed, trillion-dollar budget deficits will cripple the economy. Two parties helped create this mountain of debt, and two will be needed to reduce it, through more revenue and less spending. Since Congress seems capable only of decreasing revenue and increasing spending, many -- now, including Mr. Obama -- have fastened on the idea of a bipartisan commission that would negotiate budget fixes that Congress would vote on as a package.

We, too, favor the commission, in the absence of any evidence that Congress and the administration can act responsibly without one. One danger of such a commission, though, is that it offers a year-long excuse not to do anything serious about deficit reduction. Indeed, on Monday, two days after endorsing the commission, Mr. Obama made proposals that would, to put it charitably, increase its workload: bigger tax credits for child care and retirement. We were unable to obtain from the administration Monday any estimated cost of these new goodies.

Another danger is that each side only pretends to negotiate. Consider these profiles in courage: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) last spring harangued Mr. Obama on whether he supported the bipartisan commission, which he called "a mechanism that could actually guarantee that we get a result." Now Mr. Obama has signed on, but Mr. McConnell says a commission should focus only on spending, not revenue. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) meanwhile opposes the commission but says that if one is formed, Social Security should be off-limits because it "is not the primary source of long-term fiscal imbalance."

Well, no. It is simply one source of long-term fiscal imbalance. That Medicare costs pose an even bigger challenge is no excuse for failing to put Social Security on sustainable footing. The Baucus amendment is all third-rail posturing, not responsible legislating -- and, depressingly, a good example both of why a commission is needed, and of why it might fail.

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