Can Deficit Reduction Panels Get Congress' Attention

President Obama's bipartisan deficit commission last week released recommendations on how to reduce the federal deficit. On Wednesday, members the Rivlin-Domenici group issued their report. A third group, the Peterson Pew Commission on Budget Reform, last week released its report calling for new rules to force Congress to limit borrowing.

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It may be hard to reduce the federal deficit but there is no shortage of ideas, so let's review a few of them this morning. Just a decade ago, the federal government ran a big surplus; deficits grew under President Bush, exploded in the recession, and exceeded a trillion dollars per year under President Obama. Today's deficits are in part by design. Federal borrowing is meant to boost the economy. The question is how and when to bring deficits down.

NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson has been listening to people offering answers.

MARA LIASSON: First, there's President Obama's National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. It's two co-chairman, Republican Alan Simpson and Democrat Erskine Bowles, released recommendations last week outlining a menu of tough choices that could be made in order to shrink the federal debt, including tax hikes, spending cuts and changes to the third rails of American politics, Medicare and Social Security.

Here's Bowles on All THINGS CONSIDERED.

(Soundbite of "All Things Considered")

Mr. ERSKINE BOWLES (Co-Chair, National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform): If we don't do something about this, this is to me like me going out and buying a brand new Cadillac, driving it all over the world and beating it up till it's not worth very much but I charged it to my grandkids. We have got to take this on.

LIASSON: The deficit has been an issue before, but the economic downturn and the sheer size of the debt have forced it back into the national spotlight. Right now the government is spending faster than the economy or tax revenue can grow. The national debt is 64 percent of GDP, and members of all the commissions will tell you if we don't solve the problem, our economy will lose its competitive edge.

Alice Rivlin, who was President Clinton's budget director, co-chaired another commission - the Bipartisan Policy Center's Debt Reduction Task Force, which came out yesterday with its plan. It also cuts spending and raises some taxes in the future while calling for a one year payroll tax holiday right away to encourage hiring. This, says Rivlin, is the big subject of the moment.

Ms. ALICE RIVLIN (Former Director, Congressional Budget Office): This is our effort to say how we can reduce the debt in the future, keep the recovery going, and put the budget on a sustainable track. Everybody knows that you have to do both sides of the budget; we can't solve this problem unless we both restrain the growth of spending and raise revenues in the future.

LIASSON: There's a third commission, the Peterson Pew Commission on Budget Reform, which last week released its report calling for new rules to force Congress to limit borrowing. There's also an effort by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation to educate people about the dangers of the huge debt starring a fake political candidate.

(Soundbite of ad)

Unidentified Man: I'm Hugh Jidette and I'm running for president. I'll say a lot of things...

(Soundbite of baby)

Unidentified Man: ...but do I really care about this baby's future? When he's 30 years old, our $13 trillion debt will be 70 trillion. Eventually his taxes will double, just to pay the interest. I'm Hugh Jidette, and I say let's keep borrowing and stick our kids with the tab.

LIASSON: In Washington, commissions on the deficit have come and gone before. Of the current flurry of deficit reduction panels, only the president's commission has a chance of having its report voted on by Congress. But only if it gets 14 of 18 commissioners to agree by December 1st. Not very likely. Alice Rivlin says to get anything enacted it will take a big push.

Ms. RIVLIN: I believe that can happen but it has to take the president and the leadership of Congress, both parties.

LIASSON: Even if there's no legislative action, all these reports could perform a valuable service. They could help dispel some of the myths about deficit reduction, showing why the budget problem can't be solved by eliminating waste, fraud and abuse, or by cutting spending alone or raising taxes alone, or somehow leaving Social Security or Medicare or the Defense budget untouched. And if that happens, it may lead to what lawmakers say they want to have about the deficit - an adult conversation.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, the White House.

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