A bipartisan fiscal commission could help lawmakers address our looming debt issues

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One year from now, to borrow a phrase from Gerald Ford, our long national nightmare will be over — or at least it will be for about half of the country pending the outcome in November. Someone will have just been inaugurated president, and a new Congress will be settling in, with a good likelihood of divided government remaining.

Given our deeply polarized and dysfunctional political system, which will only have been exacerbated, expectations for enacting anyone’s legislative agenda in 2025 should be kept in check, to say the least. Instead, governing by self-imposed crisis will remain the norm. And like it or not, several action-forcing fiscal deadlines on tap for 2025 will dominate the legislative agenda, including the need to lift the debt ceiling again as well as confront the scheduled expiration of the 2017 tax cuts and discretionary spending caps put in place as part of the Fiscal Responsibility Act.

A novel idea would be to recognize this reality and begin a process now of producing a comprehensive plan to address our debt problems well in advance of these deadlines. Sound like fantasy? Fortunately, there is just that — a vehicle moving through Congress right now that might be our best hope to both get ahead of these deadlines and begin making progress on our unsustainable debt trajectory. 

The House Budget Committee recently marked up legislation on a bipartisan basis to establish a 16-member commission charged with producing a plan to rein in our unsustainable debt trajectory. The legislation incorporates changes that make it very similar to a bipartisan bill introduced in the Senate by Sens. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and eight additional co-sponsors from both parties.

The commission would consist of 12 members of Congress and four non-voting experts, equally appointed by party and chamber. A strong bipartisan vote would be required for any plan, with a report deadline taking place after the election. If reported out, its recommendations would receive expedited consideration and a guaranteed vote in Congress.

Establishing such a commission would be long overdue given our rapidly deteriorating fiscal situation. Our deficit this year will be $1.5 trillion, with interest costs alone projected to reach $870 billion this year, exceeding what we will spend on either defense or Medicare. Over the next decade, the nation is on track to borrow more than $21 trillion, a number that could rise toward $26 trillion if we extend various expired and expiring tax and spending provisions. Add to this major trust fund programs are projected to become insolvent, including Social Security in 2033 and Medicare Part A in 2031.

Commission critics charge that it would set up a secret, behind-closed-doors way to slash Social Security and Medicare. This is nonsensical and irresponsible.

The legislative language and public statements by bill supporters during congressional hearings make clear that all options would be on the table for the commission to consider, including additional tax revenues. The bill requires public hearings and an awareness campaign to engage the public to be part of the commission’s work. And any recommendations still must be approved by a three-fourths majority of commission members, as well as the full Congress, and signed by the president — hardly a secret process.

And not discussing any changes to Social Security and Medicare not only impedes progress on our fiscal challenges, given that these and other mandatory spending programs account for 60 percent of federal spending, but puts in jeopardy the well-being of those who rely on these programs the most. Upon reaching insolvency, Social Security will be mandated to enact an across-the-board 23 percent cut, resulting in an estimated $17,400 income reduction for a medium-income couple. And the longer we wait to address it, the larger the tax increases and benefit adjustments will be needed.

Skeptics say a commission is unlikely to succeed given the failure of other budget commissions in the past. But this neglects the history of other examples that helped pave the way for progress, such as the Greenspan Commission, in extending the life of Social Security in the 1980s. And even commissions that didn’t achieve consensus, such as Simpson-Bowles, helped raise awareness of our fiscal challenges and did important work in vetting policy options that became part of the legislative debate in the years following.

While a commission is no guarantee of success, are its prospects any less likely than Congress producing a plan on its own well in advance of these deadlines? At a time when any semblance of legislating will soon grind to a halt amid the 2024 campaign, why not get a group of members started doing the hard work of producing a plan so they are better prepared when these issues are thrust on their agenda next year.

It may be a long shot, but there is nothing to lose. What we might gain, if successful, is restoring a small bit of faith that our political system can in fact work. 

Michael V. Murphy is Senior Vice President and Chief of Staff at the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget

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