Details, hope in short supply as Obama fiscal commission readies for eight-month sprint

Jon Ward Contributor
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One week from Tuesday, 18 men and women will begin an attempt to fix, in eight months, what is possibly the country’s greatest problem: the federal budget deficit, national debt and runaway entitlement spending.

Many think they’re doomed to failure.

“I hope its successful but I’m not optimistic that it will be,” said David Walker, president and chief executive of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, a two-year-old nonprofit focused on America’s debt crisis.

Walker, who had hoped to be on President Obama’s fiscal commission himself, was not chosen to fill one of the six slots apportioned to the White House. He said that the way the commission is set up to operate, with meetings in the nation’s capital but little engagement with the country at large, is “the same old Washington approach.”*

The Peterson Foundation will hold its own fiscal summit on April 28 — the day after the president’s fiscal commission holds its first meeting — which will include members of the commission and which will be headlined by an interview of former President Bill Clinton by ABC’s George Stephanopolous.

As for members of the president’s commission, the only pattern that emerged from interviews with several of them was that there is still a lot that is unknown about how the commission will work, and each member is keeping their individual agenda to themselves for the time being.

Co-chairmen Erskine Bowles, a Democrat who was White House chief of staff to President Clinton, and Alan Simpson, a former Republican senator from Wyoming, met with some members of the commission last week.

But Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, North Dakota Democrat, said that even on the issue of how often the commission meets and how it organizes its work, Bowles has yet to fully lay out what he expects.

“He’s got a plan for how we organize our work going forward, that he wants to outline at that meeting and get member feedback on. He kind of gave me a thumbnail but said he would lay it out more fully on the 27th,” Conrad said.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, Illinois Democrat, was even less forthcoming, declining to comment in person and issuing a statement through a spokesman that said only that he will “talk regularly” with Bowles and Simpson.

Republicans, who suspect that the commission may become a vehicle that allows the president to endorse higher tax rates while reducing the political damage of that action, disclosed at least a few details about what they hope to accomplish.

Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, said he is going to make “waste, abuse, fraud and inefficiencies” in Medicaid a priority issue and will make sure it gets attention in commission meetings.

“Nobody else is going to focus on that,” Coburn said. “Nobody else thinks the $300 billion that we waste every year is important. Over 10 years that’s $3 trillion. So we’re going to look at that aspect of it.”

Sen. Judd Gregg, a New Hampshire Republican and the ranking member on the Senate Budget Committee, said he believes the commission is “going to have to be willing to produce legislative language.”

The commission is required to provide its recommendations, which must be supported by at least 14 of its 18 members yet have no binding authority on Congress, by Dec. 1.

“I don’t think we want to end up with a report that supports concepts,” Gregg said.

Many fiscal conservatives have feared that the due date of the report — after November’s mid-term elections — will allow the White House to use the commission to justify tax increases, perhaps a Value Added Tax.

Top advisers to the president have spoken favorably of a VAT recently, but the Senate voted last week overwhelmingly in support of a resolution that declared a VAT to be a “massive tax increase that will cripple families on fixed income.”

One lawmaker who is not on the commission spoke openly about what he hopes gets done. Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat, said he is pushing the White House to consider working with the commission to incorporate his tax reform proposal, which is co-sponsored by Gregg.

Wyden said that the commission “is going to be absolutely pivotal” in potentially moving the Wyden-Gregg bill forward.

Conrad said the one thing he is certain of is that from now until December, his spot on the commission means he will be working almost the equivalent of two full-time jobs.

“It’s going to do is expand my work day, which is already pretty good,” he said.

Here is the full list of commission members:

  • Erskine Bowles, commission co-chair
  • Alan Simpson, commission co-chair
  • David Cote, chairman and chief executive of Honeywell
  • Ann Fudge, former chairman and chief executive of Young and Rubicam, General Mills & Kraft
  • Alice Rivlin, former OMB director under Clinton, Fed Reserve vice chair
  • Andy Stern, outgoing president of SEIU
  • Dick Durbin, Senate Majority Whip, Illinois Democrat
  • Max Baucus, Senate Finance Committee Chairman, Montana Democrat
  • Kent Conrad, Senate Budget Committee Chairman, North Dakota Democrat
  • Judd Gregg, ranking member, Senate Budget Committee, New Hampshire Republican
  • Mike Crapo, Idaho Republican
  • Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican
  • John Spratt, chairman of the House Budget Committee, South Carolina Democrat
  • Xavier Becerra, vice chair of House Democratic Caucus, California Democrat
  • Jan Schakowsky, Energy and Commerce Committee, Illinois Democrat
  • Dave Camp, ranking member, House Ways and Means Committee, Michigan Republican
  • Paul Ryan, ranking member, House Budget Committee Wisconsin Republican
  • Jeb Hensarling, Texas Republican

*Walker contacted the Daily Caller Monday to clarify his statement, saying he has “always viewed the Commission as an opportunity to explore sensible solutions to our nation’s fiscal challenges.”

“It is unclear what approach the Commission will employ, but I certainly hope the Commission will engage representative groups of the American people across the country,” Walker said by e-mail.

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