Bipartisan action on the federal debt -- outside the Capitol, of course

By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, January 26, 2010; A02

At 11:30 Tuesday morning, the Senate will choose between responsible governance and ideological warfare.

The smart money is on the latter.

The federal debt has exploded to an incomprehensible $12.1 trillion, and the nation continues on its path to becoming a wholly owned subsidiary of the People's Republic of China. Yet lawmakers can't even agree on a modest proposal to form an independent debt commission and then vote on its recommendations.

The debt commission is expected to be voted down Tuesday morning, as foes on the far left and the far right unite to form a status quo supermajority. Prospects have become so bleak that a couple of retired congressional leaders got together Monday morning in hopes of shaming their former colleagues into action.

"They have to get on with this," exhorted Republican Pete Domenici, the former chairman of the Senate Budget Committee. "I don't think we can go through another full legislative session and not do something."

"We're beyond a level of frustration and nearing a level of fear, when serious people begin to think about downgrading America's debt," pleaded Democrat Tom Daschle, the former Senate majority leader. "We need to act now."

The two men, along with Alice Rivlin, who served as budget director and as a Fed official under President Bill Clinton, were in the offices of the Bipartisan Policy Center to announce that they were forming a private-sector debt commission. They recruited a group of heavy hitters, including two former governors and a former commerce secretary, but all they can do is make suggestions -- which, if past is prologue, Congress will ignore.

Sens. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) and Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), the chairman and ranking minority member of the Senate Budget Committee, tried to get beyond this congressional inertia by proposing a statutory commission whose recommendations would be guaranteed an up-or-down vote. Lawmakers, they reasoned, had proved they couldn't make the tough choices on their own.

They lined up 35 sponsors and co-sponsors, 21 Republicans and 14 Democrats, and in the last couple of months the proposal appeared to have a chance at passage. Then the ideologues got involved.

On the right, the Heritage Foundation and the Wall Street Journal editorial board objected, and anti-tax activist Grover Norquist campaigned for the commission's defeat. Six Republicans, including Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), buckled and withdrew their support for the commission.

On the left, the AFL-CIO, the NAACP, and other groups redoubled their opposition, even as President Obama gave the commission his last-minute endorsement on Saturday.

The conservatives fear that the commission would lead to higher taxes. The liberals fear that it would lead to cuts in entitlement programs. They're both probably correct -- for the simple reason that the debt problem is too big to fix without doing both.

Domenici, who left the Senate last year after 36 years, appealed to his former Republican colleagues on Monday to drop their resistance to a commission that would look at tax increases as well as spending cuts. "You can't go here saying we're just going to change taxes and grow out of it. It won't work," the 77-year-old New Mexican said. "You've got to put taxes on the table. . . . I'm sorry that some Republicans think otherwise."

Rivlin appealed to the liberals to drop their reflexive resistance to a commission that would reduce spending. "Cutting spending, especially entitlement benefits that people have counted on, will cause real pain, but it's nothing [compared] to what would happen if we pretend that we can go on this trajectory," she said.

They're right, of course, but such appeals to reason aren't likely to hold sway in a Senate governed by the passions of right and left. No new taxes! Save Social Security! Hands off Medicare!

Contrast those slogans with the intellectual pleas of Domenici, Daschle and Rivlin as they announced their plans. In the front of the room were charts showing red ink and bearing messages such as "GAO long-term fiscal outlook Fall 2009 alternative simulation" and "AMT is indexed to inflation through 2019." Former GOP Senate leaders Bob Dole and Howard Baker were listed as participants in the session, but neither was able to make it. The earnest former officials who did show up delivered familiar messages:

"If we continue on the present path, most of the important programs for education, health care, pensions, for infrastructure and other basic social needs, will be pushed aside," pleaded Daschle.

"America has probably the worst economic future that we've ever had," pleaded Domenici. "America won't be a power in the world if we let this kind of tsunami debt continue."

"We have to do something about this," pleaded Rivlin. "We have reached a limit, and we have to face this problem."

Correct, correct and correct. For another view, tune in to C-SPAN2 Tuesday morning at 11:30.

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