This week the Senate will be debating an increase in the federal debt limit, necessary because before Congress recessed for the holidays, they had passed an increase that bought them only a couple more months. What makes this week’s consideration of the debt limit more interesting is the potential for amendments that would attempt to inject more discipline into the budget process just as the budget constraint is (again) being relaxed.
One such amendment would create a deficit-reduction panel (or “task force” or don’t-dare-say “commission”). The problem with that idea? As Jackie Calmes wrote last week in the New York Times, even policymakers who want to do something to reduce the deficit in the name of “fiscal responsibility” don’t always want to work on (all of) the specific ways to reduce the deficit:
…the same partisan divisions that keep elected officials from cutting spending and raising taxes enough to rein in deficits are also at play in the debate over a panel to make those decisions and force action.
The Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, has said tax increases should not be an option, while some Democrats see a budget panel as a threat to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.
“A claim that any of those items should be off the table is a claim that you really don’t want to do anything about the problem,” Mr. Gregg said. “You can’t resolve the out-year financial problems of this country, which are massive, unless you have everything on the table.”
The Senate has been far more receptive to the commission concept than the House; witness their different health reform bills, with only the Senate’s specifying the “independent payment advisory board.” The House has generally opposed the idea because they believe it would take too much power away from Congress. (Sadly, that is the point.)
Another possible amendment would consider a statutory pay-as-you-go (PAYGO) rule on new (mandatory) spending or tax cuts. The House already passed a version of this last year, but the Senate has generally been cold to PAYGO for a diversity of reasons: Senate Republicans don’t like having to pay for tax cuts and think that the House’s exemption of the bulk of the Bush tax cuts plus AMT relief isn’t “blanket-enough” of an exemption, and Senator Conrad has argued that the exemption is too generous to allow PAYGO to make enough of a difference.
So the Senate and the House haven’t been able to agree on the right form of fiscal discipline to pair with the debt limit increase; they all just agree we have to increase the debt limit.
Meanwhile, advocacy groups are mobilizing this week to pitch their cases for or against the debt-limit increase (and these associated amendments) to Congress, and there’s clear disagreement here, too. In this case the groups seem to divide not so much by political party as by generation. On the one hand, you have young “Millennials” holding a rally on Wednesday calling on Congress to get more serious about fiscal responsibility, and their positions include supporting the idea of a fiscal commission. On the other hand, you have “elderbloggers” (their label, not mine) organizing a “call-in day” in opposition to the Senate’s consideration of a fiscal commission. I find it unfortunate to see this form of (what at least feels like) “intergenerational warfare,” because I truly believe that the different generations share common–not mutually exclusive–goals. (We all have (or had) parents, and many of us have children–and we care about them.) But labels and hyped-up reactions to labels unfortunately have a way of encouraging false conflict.
More later this week as the drama unfolds.