Budget Panel Idea Resurrected, Years After Bowles-Simpson

By Jonathan Nicholson

Sept. 8 — The idea of a commission to tackle the federal deficit and submit big proposals to Congress to vote on has re-emerged on Capitol Hill, six years after the failure of the Bowles-Simpson budget panel.

Former Senate Budget Committee Chairman Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) lent his support to the idea at a Sept. 8 hearing by the Joint Economic Committee. The Bowles-Simpson panel, a 2010 bipartisan commission headed by Democrat Erskine Bowles and former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) and also known as Simpson-Bowles, was itself modeled on the military base closure process of the 1990s.

Gregg said the approach had merit for a new panel.

“Simpson-Bowles was a complete success, except for the fact that it never got passed,” Gregg said.

The panel failed to gather a necessary supermajority to issue recommendations that could be voted on by Congress (See previous story, 12/07/15).

“An approach based on the Base Realignment and Closure Commission is a strong and effective option,” Gregg said in his prepared testimony. “All spending (discretionary and mandatory) and all tax policy should be reviewed, with the primary goal of putting the federal budget on a path to solvency by limiting the growth of the national debt. The approach, as with BRACC, must be bipartisan in nature and require an up-or-down vote on the entire package without amendment.”

‘Upcoming Debt Implosion.'

JEC Chairman Dan Coats (R-Ind.) has proposed a more narrowly focused version he calls the Mandatory Bureaucratic Re-Alignment and Consolidation Commission (S. 3294). The bill, introduced Sept. 7, would create a commission to look at mandatory spending programs—including some of the government's largest programs, like Medicare and Social Security—and make recommendations to ensure they account for no more than half of federal spending, excluding interest. The recommendations would then face an up-or-down vote in Congress on an expedited basis.

“This along with a balanced budget amendment, could prevent the upcoming debt implosion, if we act soon,” Coats said.

Rep. John Delaney (D-Md.), with Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a key House appropriator, also introduced a bill (H.R. 1578) in 2015 to set up a 13-member commission to shore up Social Security's finances. With the approval of nine of its members, its recommendations would get an up-or-down vote in Congress.

However, other Bowles-Simpson-like approaches to tackling the deficit have fallen flat. A think tank effort in 2010 led by former Clinton White House budget chief Alice Rivlin and former Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) failed to gain momentum for its policies and a 2011 “supercommittee” of House and Senate lawmakers was unable to come to agreement.

‘No Substitute for Congress.'

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), a veteran of the Bowles-Simpson commission and one of three House Republicans to vote against it issuing recommendations, said he preferred to have Congress work through conventional methods, such as passing budget resolutions, rather than hand off to an outside group.

“They're nice exercises but they're no substitute for Congress actually doing its job,” Ryan said at his weekly press conference at the Capitol. “And having a president who is willing to actually take this issue on. The president has never ever given us a budget that ever balances. He's never proposed to balance the budget. We need to get on with that.”

At the hearing, Rivlin testified that forecasted low long-term interest rates provide an opportunity—as some economists have recently proposed—for investing in major building projects that would help the economy grow. But she said that should not be seen as an alternative to dealing with the deficit.

“Investment in future growth is essential to a prosperous future, but must be undertaken simultaneously with actions to reduce the growth of future debt. Faster growth alone will not reduce the debt-to-GDP ratio in a society that has already committed itself to benefits for a growing older population—benefits that will increase more rapidly than revenues even at hoped-for higher rates of GDP growth,” she said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jonathan Nicholson in Washington at jnicholson@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Heather Rothman at hrothman@bna.com

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