Obama's Debt Panel Ensnared In Partisan Politics

President Obama will sign an executive order Thursday establishing a commission to help the government find ways to gain control of the federal deficit. But like everything else in Washington, even this idea is enmeshed in partisan politics. At the same time, worry about the deficit is no longer confined to those who generally prefer smaller government.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

The government is on pace to set another red ink record for the year. According to the Treasury Department, the government ran a deficit of more than $430 billion over the last four months. President Obama says in the short run it's important for the government to keep spending borrowed money. But ultimately, he says, the government has to get back to fiscal responsibility. And to that end, the president will sign an executive order tomorrow setting up a bipartisan commission to recommend budget fixes.

NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY: President Obama said in his weekly radio address the nation's budget problems were years in the making. And the only way to solve them is to put politics aside and make hard choices. Not exactly a Washington strong suit these days.

President BARACK OBAMA: The American people are tired of politicians who talk the talk, but don't walk the walk when it comes to fiscal responsibility. It's easy to get up in front of the cameras and rant against exploding deficits. What's hard is actually getting deficits under control.

HORSLEY: So hard, in fact, neither Congress nor the president want to tackle the challenge on their own. Alice Rivlin, who managed the White House budget office during the Clinton administration, says the government's long-term fiscal outlook is now so far out of balance, it will take some heavy lifting to correct it.

Ms. ALICE RIVLIN (Founding Director, Congressional Budget Office): It can't be done all on the spending side and it can't be done all on the revenue side. It's going to take both and that's been the political problem.

HORSLEY: Congressional Democrats won't cut spending on Medicare or Social Security, which largely drive future deficits. And Republicans won't raise taxes. Douglas Holtz-Eakin, who ran the Congressional Budget Office and advised John McCain's presidential campaign, says the only way to break this stalemate is for both parties to give ground.

Mr. DOUGLAS HOLTZ-EAKIN (Former Director, Congressional Budget Office): The things you have to do to control the fiscal outlook, which are reduce spending in places that it's popular and raise taxes in places where it's unpopular are politically unpalatable. And so to have both parties hold hands and do it at the same time is really the key.

HORSLEY: The bipartisan commission the president is setting up tomorrow could be a vehicle for that kind of compromise. Mr. Obama decided to order the commission after a similar panel he supported proposed by Senators Kent Conrad and Judd Gregg failed to pass the Senate. Unlike the Conrad-Gregg panel, the president's commission would have no power to force Congress into action. But Rivlin says it might still make a difference.

Ms. RIVLIN: If the president can get very good people on the commission, he may be able to shame both parties into working together.

HORSLEY: The president spoke last week with Republican congressional leaders about naming members to his commission. Mr. Obama himself named a Republican co-chair, former Wyoming Senator Alan Simpson. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs says Simpson's appointment should carry some weight.

Mr. ROBERT GIBBS (White House Press Secretary): I think he is somebody who has dealt with many of these issues throughout his tenure in Washington in a serious way. What the Republicans decide to do is largely up to them.

HORSLEY: New Hampshire Republican Judd Gregg is still smarting that his own idea for a congressional deficit commission failed in the Senate. He's doubtful Mr. Obama's commission will do much to improve the nation's fiscal situation.

Senator JUDD GREGG (Republican, New Hampshire): Well, you, you know, obviously can discuss the issues and you can have a report. There has been a lot of commissions over the years that have done this. I've served on two of them. They both came up with very substantive and thoughtful approaches as to how you get our fiscal house in order. Unfortunately, in both instances there was no follow-up.

HORSLEY: In the end, Gregg says lawmakers are better at considering the next election than the next generation.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.