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Obama's new debt commission: Will it have any teeth?

With an executive order this morning, President Obama created the "National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, a bipartisan commission designed to confront the nation's growing debt in the face of congressional inaction," my Post colleague Mike Shear writes.

It's right to cast a critical eye on this commission, experts already are saying.

“While the goals of this debt commission are laudable, I am skeptical that the administration and Congress will act on their recommendations in a substantial manner,” said Rick Berman, executive director of the Employment Policies Institute, a nonpartisan research outfit. "This debt commission was created because Congress doesn’t have the political will to confront the entitlement programs driving our national debt.”

The EPI pointed out three recent failures of similar commissions:

  • 1995: President Clinton’s Commission on Entitlement and Tax Reform – a 32-member bipartisan panel tasked with creating a plan to control the growth of programs like Medicare and Social Security – couldn’t reach a consensus solution. The commission didn’t offer official recommendations, simply concluding that “the present trend is not sustainable."

  • 1997: Clinton’s 13-member commission on Social Security released three separate proposals on reforming the entitlement program. Congress failed to act on any of the proposals.

  • 2001: President Bush’s Commission to Strengthen Social Security reached an agreement on broad principles of reform, but failed to reach a consensus on a particular plan. Three alternatives were released, one of which Bush embraced in 2005. This “privatization” campaign was roundly rejected by Congress and the public.

    Few people know more about budget deficits and the growing U.S. national debt than Dave Walker, former U.S. comptroller who is now at the Pete Peterson Foundation. His mission is raising awareness of the debt. Walker starred in the 2008 documentary, "I.O.U.S.A." You can read an interview I did with Walker last August by clicking here.

    Here's what Walker had to say about the new debt commission:

      “It is time for Republicans and Democrats in Washington to live up to their responsibilities as elected leaders by working together to address our nation’s deteriorating finances and mounting fiscal challenges. Members on both sides of the political aisle must support this Commission so that it can find real, workable solutions to problems that place American families and the U.S. economy at great risk.


      "While it is important to meet the goal of primary budget balance by 2015, it is even more critical to focus on addressing the nation’s structural fiscal imbalances which are projected to grow significantly over the next several decades. Longer-term structural deficits are what really threaten America’s future. To create a sustainable future for all Americans, everything must be on the table."

    I e-mailed Walker and asked him if he is upset he was not asked to chair the commission and if he'd been asked to be on it. He e-mailed back:

    "I am not upset and didn't expect to be asked to chair it since it is a bipartisan commission and I am a political independent. I know that many people would like me to be on it but since I'm a political independent, I'm not sure if they will appoint any of us. They clearly should since political independents represent a growing plurality of the population, but the doesn't mean the president will."

    Walker's big interest is unfunded long-term entitlement programs that are budget-busters: Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

    Walker says, "Everything must be on the table." That's a political choice that lawmakers in Congress will have to make. Do I cut Medicare or Medicaid to bring down the long-term debt at the risk of getting voted out of office? Hmmmm. Or do I help push through a Social Security reform bill that includes a privatization element that will help bring down long-term debt at the political risk of being painted as the guy who's trying to take away Granny's Social Security check? Hmmmm.

    Obama can create all the commissions he wants. And to be clear, creating this commission is better than not creating it. Take a look at the national debt to the penny by clicking here. But the power of the budget continues to rest on Capitol Hill. We've already seen incumbent backlash, and we're not even to the November elections yet.

    Follow me on Twitter at @theticker

  • By Frank Ahrens  |  February 18, 2010; 12:28 PM ET
    Categories:  Deficit/debt , The Ticker  | Tags: David Walker, Obama, deficit, national debt  
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    Comments

    An Idea to Help Balance the Budget!

    There are 2.6 trillion stock transactions per year in the USA. If there were a ONE DOLLAR FEE on every transaction, that would create an extra 2.6 TRILLION DOLLARS for our BUDGET. It would only cost an individual who bought or sold stocks 1 extra dollar each time they executed a stock order. We could call it
    “A CHARGE TO REBUILD AMERICA.”
    Can you think of a reason this wouldn't work?

    Posted by: jcm124 | February 19, 2010 11:50 PM | Report abuse

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