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Fiscal commission bills under fire from conservative groups

Anti-tax advocates add their voices; progressives, Democrats opposed to possible benefit cuts

Grover Norquist, founder of the conservative anti-tax group Americans for Tax Reform, is helping to lead the effort against the proposed fiscal commission.
Grover Norquist, founder of the conservative anti-tax group Americans for Tax Reform, is helping to lead the effort against the proposed fiscal commission. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Americans for Tax Reform and several other conservative advocacy groups have banded together to launch an assault from the right on a proposed fiscal commission that would be endowed with the power to produce fast-tracked deficit reduction measures.

In a letter to lawmakers set for release Thursday, the organizations urged rejection of fiscal commission bills in both chambers that some lawmakers on both sides of the aisle would like to attach to fast-moving legislation, like the fiscal 2024 spending bills due next month.

The groups charge in their letter, obtained by CQ Roll Call, that a fiscal commission “is a tax trap designed to get Republican fingerprints on a tax increase in exchange for ‘spending cuts’ that never materialize.”

What’s more, ATR and allies say any tax increases proposed by a fiscal commission would be used to “undermine” efforts to extend the 2017 tax cuts when they expires after 2025. That’s because any specific tax increases that are enacted by Congress would not be available to use as potential offsets to extend the 2017 provisions.

ATR is led by Grover Norquist, who founded the group in 1985 and has worked since then to persuade lawmakers at the federal, state and local levels to oppose any net increase in taxes. Norquist’s group obtains signatures from lawmakers and candidates on a pledge not to vote for any increase in tax rates or reduction in credits or deductions unless matched “dollar for dollar” with tax rate cuts.

The House Budget Committee last month approved a bill that would create a 16-member bipartisan fiscal commission to come up with a solution to the government’s worsening budget outlook and send legislation to Congress for expedited action. Bill Huizenga, R-Mich., and Scott Peters, D-Calif., co-wrote the bill.

Creating a fiscal commission is a high priority for House Budget Chairman Jodey C. Arrington, R-Texas, who has said he hopes the commission proposal could be attached to fiscal 2024 appropriations legislation and enacted before the end of the year.

Advocates of a commission say the burgeoning growth in deficits and debt will eventually lead to a fiscal and economic crisis, and that Democratic and Republican lawmakers and presidents have proven unable to reach a compromise on a solution.

Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., and Mitt Romney, R-Utah, introduced a companion measure in the Senate last year.

Both bills have a mix of Republican and centrist Democratic co-sponsors — two dozen in the House and nine in the Senate.

‘Cover for Democrats’

Three Democrats on the GOP-controlled House Budget panel crossed party lines to vote for the proposal last month. Many more Democrats were opposed.

Democrats in both chambers — including Senate Finance Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore. — have widely attacked a fiscal commission as a vehicle they say will lead to cuts in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid benefits.

Now the idea of a fiscal commission is under assault from conservatives.

The ATR letter says there is no need for a fiscal commission “to explain what is driving the national debt” because “we already know spending is the problem.” It said a fiscal commission “will only serve to provide cover for Democrats to impose tax increases.”

Various nonpartisan budget watchdog groups argue that any solution to the government’s budget problems would likely include both tax increases and spending cuts, since members of both parties would have to compromise to pass legislation.

But the ATR-led letter says previous fiscal commissions have resulted in tax increases without promised spending cuts.

It cites President Ronald Reagan saying “we never got the $3 in spending cuts” after he agreed to a “bipartisan grand bargain” in 1982 that promised $3 in spending cuts for every $1 in tax increases. Similarly, George Bush, Reagan’s successor as president, admitted it was “a mistake” to agree to a budget deal with Democrats after the promised $2 in spending cuts for every  $1 in tax increases did not materialize, according to the letter.

Advocates of fiscal commissions point to the 2010 National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, led by former Wyoming GOP Sen. Alan Simpson and Democrat Erskine Bowles.

The commission drew praise for formulating a comprehensive deficit reduction plan that combined spending cuts with revenue increases. Nevertheless, opposition from enough Simpson-Bowles panel members on both sides of the aisle prevented the package from obtaining the required supermajority support on the committee to advance to a vote in Congress.

Simpson-Bowles “would have raised taxes over the next decade by $2 trillion, and was riddled with phony spending cut gimmicks and double-counting,” the ATR-led letter says, taking credit for helping to sink the deal along with groups like Club for Growth, Americans for Prosperity and the Heritage Foundation.

Club for Growth President David McIntosh is a signatory on the Norquist-led letter, as is Phil Kerpen, president of American Commitment, another group that promotes low taxes and free-market principles. Kerpen formerly worked for the Charles Koch-backed advocacy group Americans for Prosperity.

Ryan Ellis, ATR’s former tax policy director who’s now president of a conservative nonprofit called Center for a Free Economy, is also among the signatories.

This report first appeared on CQ.com. 

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