Does Congress Have Enough Political Will To Reduce The Debt?

When the bipartisan budget deal was announced in December, supporters heralded cuts that would balance spending increases — among them, a slight reduction to the pensions of working-age military retirees. But a bipartisan consensus emerged to undo it — calling into the question whether Congress has the political will necessary to make any cuts that reduce the long-term debt.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

When Congress reached a bipartisan budget deal last December, there was much fanfare about the compromises made by both parties. And immediately afterwards, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle began working to reverse one of the spending cuts - a small reduction in military pensions. One plan to restore those pensions is up for a vote today in the Senate. As NPR's Ailsa Chang reports, resistance against the small cut is calling into question whether Congress has the political will to reduce the long-term debt.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: There's been a lot of attention on all the things this Congress can't or won't get done, like gun control legislation, immigration reform, unemployment benefits. Then there's the stuff Congress actually does get done but wants to take back later - sort of like sorry, we didn't really mean to do that. And in that category of items is a small cut to military pensions that passed in last December's budget deal - a 1 percent reduction in cost-of-living adjustments for military retirees under age 62.

It may not sound like a lot of money but now, a slew of lawmakers who voted for the budget agreement want to undo that cut, like Democrat Tim Kaine of Virginia.

SEN. TIM KAINE: We needed a budget. I didn't like this COLA provision. But no budget would have hurt veterans and would have hurt the military, and hurt my state even more.

CHANG: Several of Kaine's colleagues agree. They had to support the budget agreement because the country needed a budget. But they fully expected to unravel the military pension cut later. Take, for example, Connecticut Democrat Richard Blumenthal.

SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL: We were assured, as part of the vote, that there would be independent reconsideration of the cuts. And now, there has to be reconsideration.

CHANG: And Independent Angus King, of Maine.

SEN. ANGUS KING: I voted for the budget agreement, which included this part, in part because I knew that it didn't take affect for two years, and that there would be plenty of time to fix it, and that we would fix it.

CHANG: It's all part of a pattern quite familiar to Stan Collender, who's been watching fiscal battles for years.

STAN COLLENDER: This is one of the longest-standing types of congressional ways of doing business. That is, you vote for something today that you can take back tomorrow, and get credit for doing both.

CHANG: Collender says most budget deals only last a matter of months before lawmakers try to reverse them. Remember those automatic, across-the-board spending cuts? After those took affect, both sides have tried finding ways to soften the blow. It does make one wonder, what would it take, then, to make any cuts actually stick to reduce the long-term debt?

COLLENDER: You're not going to make serious inroads in the deficit until you have some meeting of the minds - everyone sitting down and willing to compromise, the so-called grand bargain - because the individual programs are too sensitive at this point to make much of a difference. And they're relatively small compared to the magnitude of government debt or deficit.

CHANG: The military pension cut is pretty modest. It amounted to savings of $6 billion over 10 years. The problem was, that still represented a sizeable chunk of the overall savings in the December budget deal. Missing in that agreement was the collective sacrifice a grand bargain might one day entail.

And Ross Baker, of Rutgers University, says especially when military veterans get singled out to bear a disproportionate burden, it won't fly because much of the public thinks they've sacrificed enough.

ROSS BAKER: Anything that involves the military - particularly benefits and so on - touches a very, very tender nerve.

CHANG: Hit the wrong constituency, and it will backfire. Baker says recall a 1988 law, promising to help Medicare recipients cope with catastrophic medical expenses. Senior citizens were furious when the law slapped them with higher taxes. And Congress quickly repealed the act only a year and a half after it was enacted.

BAKER: There's a lot of disowning of one's own offspring in Congress...

(LAUGHTER)

BAKER: ...as far as legislation is concerned. If the public outcry is loud enough and energetic enough, even the sponsors of legislation will just kind of throw in the towel.

CHANG: But if lawmakers are ready to throw in the towel over a $6 billion cut, think about what it will take to deal with long-term debt in the tens of trillions.

Ailsa Chang, NPR News, the Capitol.

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