This Week in Deficit Hawks

by Gary Therkildsen*, 12/18/2009

Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT)

On Thursday, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), in an attempt to become more "relevant," held a hearing in search of fiscal remedies to the country's growing $12 trillion debt. Rather than provide a platform for exploring different options, though, Lieberman lined up witnesses to trumpet a special congressional commission that could railroad budget "solutions" through Congress. Lieberman, along with several of his hearing witnesses, has joined a small but vocal choir of deficit-hawk-converts that are demanding the government address budget shortfalls immediately, seemingly without regard to current fiscal circumstances.

The first panel at Lieberman's economic scare-fest was the chair and ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee, Sens. Kent Conrad (D-ND) and Judd Gregg (R-NH) respectively, who talked up their recently introduced legislation to create the Bipartisan Task Force for Responsible Fiscal Action (BTFRFA?). When debuted, Jonathan Chait at The New Republic labeled the bill "insane" because it would require 14 out of 18 commission members to agree on any recommendations before the group could send them off to Congress, and then would require supermajorities in both chambers to pass any commission proposals.

As Chait facetiously remarked, the only way Conrad and Gregg could have set the bar any higher would have been to "require the commission members to create a cold fusion reactor or retrieve a magical ring from inside a volcano." But it's important to note that the two senators may have inserted those tough requirements because they recognized that a small group of sitting politicians entrusted with binding recommendation powers over the budget process could produce some horrendous results.

In an earlier piece on deficit commissions, I claimed that it would be difficult for a small group of congressional members "to make sound decisions about long-term deficit policy" because they're "prey to the powers of moneyed interests and subject to the short-term whims of electoral politics." If Congress tasks a commission to look at "all aspects of the current and long-term financial condition of the federal government," I want to know that cuts to discretionary spending are just as likely to come from defense as they are from social programs; the Conrad/Gregg commission all but guarantees that that wouldn't be the case.

Moreover, I hardly believe now is the time for such a commission. I wrote earlier this month that Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) had it right when she argued that Congress has to focus on job production before it starts to cut spending in order to balance the budget. Despite what some economists may claim about the end of the Great Recession, the country is still hurting in terms of employment and the government must continue to inject money into the economy to keep it going. Once unemployment is under control and the economy is relatively stable, Congress can begin to tackle the deficit through some combination of entitlement/spending cuts and tax increases.

Image by Flickr user BiggerPictureImages.com used under a Creative Commons license.

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