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Politics

Debt Panel Is at Work: Anyone Paying Attention?

Congress is trying to outsource its tough decisions again.

Almost by definition, blue-ribbon reform commissions have long odds of affecting public policy. Proceedings often don’t get a lot of attention because there is no guarantee that any panel’s recommendations will ever be enacted. Not surprisingly, commission hearings often can be long, dull and aimless -- sometimes by design. Often when lawmakers find something too difficult or politically dangerous to do, they’ll punt the problem to a commission to study for a year or two while the nation’s attention invariably turns to other matters.

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The betting is that the same fate awaits the latest such panel -- the blue-ribbon presidential commission on the budget deficit, which begins work this month.

Remember the last big commission on Social Security and Medicare reform, set up in 2001 by then-President George W. Bush and cochaired by then-retired Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY) and AOL-Time Warner executive Richard Parsons? For all the Social Security wizards on that commission, its final report, which advocated partial private Social Security accounts for young workers, went nowhere.

President Obama’s debt and deficit commission is composed of current and former members of Congress, business and academia. The 18-member panel, led by former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-WY) and Erskine Bowles, chief of staff under President Clinton, has plenty of public policy star power. Besides Simpson and Bowles, notable members include retiring Sen. Judd Gregg (R-NH), who has long urged entitlement reform; Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK), who raises his voice often on congressional pork and other budget matters; House Budget Committee Chairman John Spratt( D-SC); former Congressional Budget Office Director Alice Rivlin and Honeywell International CEO David M. Cote.

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The panel starts with a great opportunity to spotlight long-term debt and deficit issues and to tackle growth in mandatory and entitlement spending, which accounts for 57% of the annual budget and will only grow larger as baby boomers retire.

Let’s all hope that the debt commission can show some firepower and insist that Congress pay attention. Federal budget deficits over the next 10 years are projected to total $10 trillion, and total federal debt could rise to 90% of national economic output by 2020, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

Entitlements are the big beast in the long-term deficit debate, far outweighing other domestic spending. But entitlements, of course, are notorious for being difficult for Congress to reform. The commission will need a true audience in the White House and Congress to have any effect. If done right, it might.

Officially called the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, the panel’s stated mission is more than a little ambitious: Devise a plan to balance the budget by 2015 and curb long-term federal debt. The panel’s report is due Dec. 1, which, cynics no doubt note, is conveniently a few weeks after the congressional midterm elections.

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Congressional Democratic leaders have pledged to hold some sort of vote on the recommendations in a special postelection session in December, but they’re not required to. They easily could put it off for another time, or put it off indefinitely, especially in the absence of any public clamoring to act this year.

They might also fashion a nonbinding resolution for lawmakers to vote on reaffirming the need for deficit reduction. That’s an easy “yes” vote for anyone and typical of Washington when it doesn’t want to make tough choices.

One way to stir the pot would be for the debt commission to issue a preliminary report in early October, a month before the midterm elections, as public interest in campaigns and national politics is at a high level. Fresh ideas from the Simpson-Bowles commission could drive the news cycles for a few days, forcing incumbents and wannabes to confront the debt and deficit and entitlement spending head-on. Congressional leaders might also be forced to hold votes on commission proposals, or at least schedule debate and votes.

But don’t hold your breath. It would be great if they would act in October, but the commission, given the huge scope of the subject matter, may hardly be ready for any pronouncements that soon.

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