The Summit Breakouts: the Budget Process, and the Power of Gin
The pool report by Jonathan Weisman of The Wall Street Journal on the Fiscal Responsibility Summit's breakout session on the budget process follows:
If nothing else, the breakout session on budget process proved how difficult it is going to be to find consensus on the nation's long-term fiscal challenges.
The cast could not be faulted. The discussion was led by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Deputy OMB director Rob Nabors -- and around the table were the heavy hitters on the issue: Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D, N.D.) and the ranking Republican on the Committee, Sen. Judd Gregg (R, N.H.), almost the secretary of Commerce, House Budget Committee Chairman John Spratt (D, S.C.) and his Republican counterpart, Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, chairmen of the Senate and House appropriations committees, Daniel Inouye and David Obey, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D. Md.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D, S.D.), a co-chairman of the Blue Dog Coalition, and Sen. Evan Bayh (D, Ind.), another fiscal conservative.
Also in the room were the liberals, Roger Hickey of the Campaign for America's Future, William Spriggs, an economist from Howard University, formally with the Economic Policy Institute, and Robert Greenstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities; the budget scolds, Robert Bixby of the Concord Coalition and Al From of the Democratic Leadership Council. Also there was Mark Zandi of Economy.com and Phil Schiliro, the president's chief lobbyist.
With all those different ideologies represented and turf to be protected, little consensus was reached. At issue was whether to name a commission that would circumvent the legislative process, come up with concrete proposals on taxes and entitlement, and - if a supermajority could be reached within the commission - present those proposals to Congress for a guaranteed up-or-down vote with little to no amendments possible.
To advocates, Congress has shown there is no other choice.
"Procedure drives policy," Sen. Gregg said. "We need a procedure that will allow Congress to reach a conclusion."
"It is unrealistic to think that a system that has delivered this problem is going to take us to a better place," said Sen. Bayh.
But, as Rep. Herseth Sandlin noted, "Clearly there are pockets of resistance."
And those pockets spoke out strongly, painting the commission as an undemocratic, unfair abrogation of responsibility that would be destined to fail. That position was taken by Messers. Obey and Spratt, and to some extent, Rep. Van Hollen, and seconded by the liberal interest group representatives.
"A commission response will thrill policy wonks and not get a damned thing accomplished," Mr. Obey said. "Count me among the strong skeptics."
Mr. Greenstein said he was worried that a commission would just throw the fiscal issue into the future, "and before we know it, we run into the 2010 election."
President Obama has popular opinion behind him, Mr. Greenstein said. He needs to be given the room to forge a bipartisan agreement on his own.
If there was any movement, appeared that the group agreed the initial breadth of the commission was too ambitious and risky. Instead, Sen. Conrad, one of the commission idea's author, said they could do a hybrid, in which smaller commissions take up health care, taxation and Social Security for a year. At the end of that year, they try to merge the proposals and make sure they interact in a way that makes sense and tackles the overall fiscal problem.
Mr. Zandi warned that there was no time to deliberate. International lenders would be only so tolerant. Washington needs to signal very soon that on the other side of the two-year stimulus, there will be a serious effort to bring the deficit down and deal with the debt. If for that reason only, naming a commission now could help.
"The president is deadly serious about getting everybody's arms around this problem," Mr. Schiliro said.
"I'm an old fashioned guy," Mr. Obey concluded, suggesting the president lock everyone in a room with three bottles of gin.
"Let's go with that plan," Sen. Conrad agreed.
Posted at 6:12 PM ET on Feb 23, 2009
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