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Democrats, unions ramp up pressure against fiscal commission

Knives come out from all sides for proposal to create independent deficit reduction panel

Rep. John B. Larson says there’s no need for a commission when lawmakers could fix Social Security by taxing the rich.
Rep. John B. Larson says there’s no need for a commission when lawmakers could fix Social Security by taxing the rich. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

A proposed fiscal commission to fast-track deficit reduction measures, already under attack from the right, also faces a stepped-up assault from the left.

Rep. John B. Larson, D-Conn., led labor union leaders at a news conference Thursday to protest legislation that would create a bipartisan, bicameral commission that would devise a plan to curb red ink and require Congress to take an up-or-down vote on it with no amendments.

While anti-tax activists on the right warned the move would open the door to major tax increases, union leaders said the commission would lay the groundwork for cuts to Social Security and Medicare. 

“They should probably call this commission the Commission to Slash Benefits,” said Larson, the top Democrat on the House Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee. “It’s tantamount to passing a death panel, because that will be the impact on so many Americans.”

Larson, among other Democrats, has pushed legislation to extend the life of the Social Security trust fund by raising payroll taxes on those making more than $400,000 a year.

“We don’t need a commission,” he said. “We know that Social Security needs to be fixed.”

[Fiscal commission bills under fire from conservative groups]

More than 100 labor unions and liberal advocacy groups have lobbied against the commission plan as a threat to vital benefits for millions of Americans.

“This commission is a power grab that is trying to bypass the regular democratic process by hiding behind closed doors and fast-tracking a plan that escapes public scrutiny and accountability, and rips away the security older people rely on and have paid for,” AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler said in a statement.

Larson attacked the proposed commission as “undemocratic,” saying it would leave most lawmakers out of the loop and unable to make changes to whatever a majority of the 16-member commission recommends. “We need hearings out in the open on specific proposals so the public can see what’s going on,” he said.

The renewed attention from both sides of the aisle on the commission bill comes as lawmakers are seeking to finalize fiscal 2024 appropriations bills later this month and early next month. Some proponents are seeking to attach the measure to a final spending bill. 

‘Unsustainable’ debt growth

Momentum for a commission grew last month when the House Budget Committee advanced the legislation on a 22-12 vote, with three Democrats joining all Republicans in support.

Budget Chairman Jodey C. Arrington, R-Texas, said Wednesday that he viewed a commission as the most effective strategy for reining in the soaring cost of entitlement programs that is driving up deficits. “We need to focus on mandatory programs,” he said at a hearing he called to review the latest 10-year budget outlook of the Congressional Budget Office.

That CBO forecast said federal debt, as a share of the economy, remains on track to break the post-World War II record within five years and reach 116 percent of gross domestic product in a decade.

The Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, reinforced that message Thursday when it issued its annual report on the nation’s fiscal health. “The unsustainable long-term fiscal path poses serious economic, security, and social challenges if not addressed,” the GAO warned. 

Mandatory benefit programs such as Social Security and Medicare are key to deficit reduction, budget experts say, because those programs make up two-thirds of federal spending. And some say taxes may need to rise higher than their historical share of the U.S. economy in order to offset at least part of those benefit costs.

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, a former White House chief of staff in the Clinton administration.

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.


The House Budget Committee-approved commission bill would create a 16-member panel made up of four members each appointed by the “big four” congressional leaders: three lawmakers each plus one “outside expert” serving outside of government. 

Congressional committees of jurisdiction would have 60 days to submit their own recommendations to the panel, which would have until Dec. 12, just after the elections, to achieve consensus on a deficit reduction plan, although a majority vote on the panel could extend that deadline to May 15, 2025.

There are no rules on what the plan could consist of, other than it would need to hit a target of reducing the debt-to-GDP ratio to 100 percent by fiscal 2039 and “improve the solvency” of federal programs financed by trust funds, such as Social Security and Medicare, over a 75-year period. 

A majority vote on the panel would have to include at least two members appointed by Democrats and two appointed by Republicans, with a quorum of at least seven members required to hold a vote.

Once the recommendations are outlined in a report, along with legislative text and CBO scores, House committees with jurisdiction over portions of the bill would get a chance to “mark up” the measure. But that’s just a formality, as no amendments would be allowed. Then it would get a vote in the House with no amendments, and debate would be limited to two hours, equally divided.

In the Senate, the measure would also be subject to expedited treatment, and the motion to proceed to the legislation would require only a simple majority vote. The bill itself would not be subject to amendment, but it would face the traditional 60-vote cloture threshold to bring debate to a close.

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