May 13, 2024

Senator: America's debt tops $34 trillion and no one seems to care

Posted May 13, 2024 1:00 PM
File photo House Speaker Mike Johnson -image courtesy CSPAN
File photo House Speaker Mike Johnson -image courtesy CSPAN

WASHINGTON (AP) — For Mike Johnson it was effectively a Day 1 priority.

It's well past time, the newly elected House speaker said in October, to establish a bipartisan commission to tackle the federal government's growing $34.6 trillion in debt. "The consequences if we don’t act now are unbearable,” he said, echoing warnings from his predecessor and other House Republicans.

More than six months later, the proposal appears all but dead, extinguished by vocal opposition from both the right and the left.

The collapse underscores an unyielding dynamic in Washington, with lawmakers in both parties loath to consider the unpopular tradeoffs that would be necessary to stem the nation's swelling tide of red ink — particularly in an election year. Facing the reality that any fiscal commission would almost certainly suggest that Americans pay more or get less from their government, lawmakers have time and again done what they do so well: punt the problem to the next Congress. And they seem poised to do so again.

Many Democrats and left-leaning advocacy groups oppose the commission because they fear it would recommend cuts to Social Security benefits. Some Republicans and right-leaning groups are against it as well, fearing the panel would recommend tax increases. They’ve labeled the commission a “tax trap.”

“I’m disappointed that we haven’t got as much momentum as I thought we would,” said Rep. Jodey Arrington, the Republican chairman of the House Budget Committee. “The speaker supported it, endorsed it from the outset. But I think there are some outside groups that have weighed in, that have said that this is a backdoor way to raise taxes, and it scared some of my Republican colleagues.”

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., sponsor of the debt commission bill in the Senate, was even more pessimistic.

“No one seems to care,” Manchin said. “It’s a shame, $34.6 trillion in debt. No one cares about it.”

The debt commission legislation, modeled after previous efforts, would create a 16-member panel to recommend steps that could be taken to balance the federal budget at the earliest reasonable date and improve the long-term fiscal health of Medicare and Social Security. The commission would have 16 members — 12 from Congress, evenly divided by party, and four outside experts without voting power. The GOP-controlled House Budget Committee advanced the bill in a 22-12 vote.

The fiscal realities that would face any commission are well documented and center to a large extent on Social Security and Medicare, which consume an ever-growing share of the federal budget, and interest payments on the nation's debt.

For Social Security, the reserves for the The Old-Age and Survivors Insurance Trust Fund will run out in 2033. At that point, the program will have enough tax revenue coming in to pay about 79% of scheduled benefits. For Medicare, the trust fund covering inpatient hospital stays, hospice care and stays at skilled nursing facilities has sufficient funds to pay full benefits until 2036. At that point, 11% spending cuts would be required to match incoming revenue.

The last fiscal commission over a decade ago — chaired by Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson — recommended $4 trillion in deficit reduction over the course of a decade through a combination of tax increases and painful spending cuts. But the 11-7 vote in favor of the package was not enough to force Congress to consider it back in 2010.

Supporters of a new debt panel noted that they modeled their bill on something that has succeeded in the past — commissions to consolidate the nation's military bases. The new commission would work under a similar structure with the legislation requiring each chamber to vote on its final proposal expeditiously.

Still, Democratic lawmakers and the White House are skeptical of forming a debt commission. Shalanda Young, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, told lawmakers in a recent hearing that the administration was concerned that the one thing on the table for the commission would be Social Security benefit cuts, not asking high-income Americans to pay higher taxes.

“It will be borne on the backs of those who paid into the system and rely on this program to retire in peace,” Young said.

More than 100 Democratic lawmakers also signed onto a letter opposing the commission back in January as powerful groups such as the AFL-CIO and AARP voiced their concerns.

When Republican-aligned groups also came out against the bill, including Americans for Tax Reform and the Club for Growth, prospects for moving ahead dampened considerably. Their opposition weakened GOP leadership’s leverage in attaching the commission to an annual spending bill or other must-pass measure.

“There’s no guarantee about the outcome. I think that’s what scares more people, and this town likes to know what the outcome is,” said the House bill’s author, Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Mich.

Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, said any mechanism that allows for tax increases undermines former President Donald Trump and other Republicans running for office on a platform of cutting taxes. He said the focus must be strictly on spending reductions, and “tax increases are what politicians do instead of making decisions and hard choices.”

“The modern Republican Party is not going to put tax increases on the table as if they were part of the solution to anything,” Norquist said. “Tax increases solve no problem.”

That approach also makes Democrats such as Rep. Lloyd Doggett of Texas wary of a commission.

“We cannot solve our problems by cutting entirely. It’s got to be with some additional revenue. Unless revenues are very much on the table, I’m not for anything. It has to be both,” Doggett said.

As bleak as things look for the bill now, Rep. Scott Peters, D-Calif., said getting legislation through Congress is often a long game. Getting a House committee to approve the commission was an important step, he said. “We’re as far along as we’ve ever been.”

Supporters said they will continue pushing for getting a commission approved by the end of this Congress. Manchin mentioned the possibility of attaching it to legislation in a lame-duck session after the election and before the new Congress is sworn into office.

“We’re in that classic position where everybody hates us,” said Peters, one of three Democrats who voted for the bill in committee and is a co-sponsor. “We must be doing the right thing.”