The deficit Super Committee will hold its first public hearing Thursday morning, to adopt its rules of self-governance. Then, in a few days it will hear testimony from CBO Director Doug Elmendorf on the origins, future, and consequences of the nation’s debt.
That all sounds perfunctory, and in many ways it is. But it will also pose the panel with its first and most basic test: whether its six Democrats and six Republicans can accept a single history of the country’s large public debt as a starting point for reining it in. As simple as that should be, it’s anything but.
Outside of partisan politics, the backstory here is pretty uncontroversial.In March, Elmendorf and the CBO produced a report called “Reducing the Deficit: Spending and Revenue Options.” In it, he explains, “Since 2007, financial turmoil and a severe drop in economic activity, combined with various policies implemented in response to those conditions, have sharply reduced federal revenues and increased spending. Those changes added to the imbalance between revenues and spending that had existed before the recession, causing annual budget deficits to surge.”
This is a polite way of saying “in 2001, the country was running budget surpluses and paying down the debt. The 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts, wars in Afghanistan, and, to a lesser extent, a new Medicare prescription drug benefit turned these into large deficits, which were dramatically exacerbated by the financial crisis and ensuing recession. GDP tanked, and unemployment spiked, which automatically increased benefit spending and reduced tax revenue. President Obama topped this off with a nearly $800 billion deficit-financed stimulus bill.”
That’s the story of the past. The story of the future is one of rising health care costs, which, combined with an aging population, means federal obligations to Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries are on an unsustainable path. That means eventually either a). health care costs have to be reduced across the industry; b). costs have to be unloaded on to individuals and providers in various ways; c). a combination of these two options; or d). the country will face a genuine fiscal crisis.
That’s the basic terrain facing the Super Committee, and it argues strongly for policies that ultimately reverse the revenue losses from Bush tax cuts, and then a debate over the best ways to make health care costs sustainable or roll back government health care programs.
But Republicans are loath to acknowledge this backdrop: their role in accumulating the debt, the need to increase taxes to slow its growth, and, to a lesser extent, the imperative to debate the options for reigning it in the long term.
Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ), a Super Committee member, told reporters Tuesday the panel’s options may be limited by this basic disagreement. “If either outside forces or the President or even members of Congress were to force the committee members into situations where you have to compromise our principles, that’s going to be very, very hard to do,” he said.
Here’s Super Committee co-chair Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-TX), in an oft-repeated line: “The American people know we have a debt crisis not because they are under-taxed; it is because this President and previous Democratic Congresses have spent too much.”
That’s an incorrect history, but it supports Hensarling’s preferred solution: “One-hundred percent of the problem is on the spending side,” he said in July. “100 percent of the solution has to come from the spending side.”
This would only be possible if Democrats were willing to carve deeply into the most popular and important government programs, and leave taxes on wealthy Americans, and tax revenue as a percent of GDP at historic lows. They’re not — and a big part of the reason is that they remember where today’s high debt came from.
The first, and most basic question now is whether Republicans will acknowledge it too.
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