STEVE INSKEEP, host:
The two U.S. senators we're going to hear next want to find a way for the United States to cut down on its debts. They want to address a problem we heard about yesterday when former U.S. official David Walker warned of a long-term disaster.
Mr. DAVID WALKER (CEO, Peter G. Peterson Foundation): We will ultimately turn the economy around, but what we have to do is deal with the large known and growing structural deficits that are growing with the passage of time and that are not long term anymore. They are within the horizon. They are going to hit our shores, and we are not prepared.
INSKEEP: One possible solution has the support of both Senators Kent Conrad and Judd Gregg. Conrad is the top Democrat on the Senate Budget Committee. He's in Washington. Senator Conrad, welcome to the program.
Senator KENT CONRAD (Democrat, North Dakota; Chairman, Senate Budget Committee): Good to be with you, and thanks for having us.
INSKEEP: And Senator Gregg is the top Republican on that same committee. He's on the line from his home state of New Hampshire. And Senator Gregg, welcome to you.
Senator JUDD GREGG (Republican, New Hampshire): Thank you, Steve. It's a pleasure to be here with you and talk with Kent, also.
INSKEEP: And before we get to your proposed solution, I want to understand from each of you, how serious is the debt problem the United States faces right now?
Sen. CONRAD: Well, let me just say - this is Senator Conrad - I view this as a very serious threat facing the country. We've already seen in the last eight years a doubling of the debt. We're set to more than double it again the next eight years unless we have some change in course. Now, we've got to make long-term adjustments to our entitlement programs, to our revenue base to get on a firmer fiscal foundation.
Sen. GREGG: We're literally going to pass on to our children a country they can't afford. Their standard of living is going to go down dramatically. The tax burden will go up dramatically. The benefits for senior citizens who are retired will be adjusted dramatically if we allow ourselves to go over this cliff.
INSKEEP: I want to make sure what you're saying. It seems like you're both saying this is not just a problem of the recession, where we've had eye-popping trillion-dollar deficits. This was a problem before the recession and is going to be a problem after the recession, you're saying.
Sen. GREGG: This is Judd Gregg. There's no question that the recession has aggravated the situation and accelerated the problem, but the things that had to be done to get us out of this recession were reasonable actions, such as the decision to try to stabilize the financial industry. And they could be managed if we knew that as we went forward, we were going to start to reduce our level of debt, but just the opposite's happening. We're on a course that, as everybody is saying, is unsustainable.
Sen. CONRAD: Let me just say, I agree entirely with Senator - what Senator Gregg has described. What the future will hold will be very big tax increases, very big benefit cuts in social security and Medicare if we don't find a way to develop solutions that are more timely. That's the reality, and some have been criticizing us saying, well, we just want to go out and cut Social Security and Medicare. I would say if they're saying the answer is do nothing, they're the ones that threaten Social Security and Medicare.
INSKEEP: Haven't you and your 98 colleagues in the United States Senate known just about everything you just told me for years?
Sen. CONRAD: Yes. And, you know, we actually took action and got the country on a course of reducing deficits in the Clinton administration. Then we had 9/11. We had a series of tax cuts. We had wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, deficits and debt exploded. And now the question is: Do we make long-term adjustments, and do we do it in a way that's timely.
Sen. GREGG: Yeah, Kent's right. Congress is good at dealing with the next election. We're not good at dealing with the next generation. Now it's not over the horizon. It's not only on the horizon, it's closing fast. I mean, now that the problem is in front of us, we should do something about it.
INSKEEP: So what do you want to do?
Sen. CONRAD: This is Kent. Our proposal is an 18-member task force, 16 members are from Congress - eight Democrats, eight Republicans - two representatives of the administration, including the secretary of the treasury. And if 14 of the 18 could agree on a set of proposals, that those proposals would come to Congress, to the House, to the Senate for a vote, and it would only pass if there was a super majority in both chambers and under our proposal, 60 votes in the Senate, 60 percent of the House. And, of course, the president would retain his right to veto.
INSKEEP: So just so I understand your proposal, a special group of senators, representatives, and some representatives of the administration, they go away, they come back with a package of presumably politically dangerous or painful budget cuts or tax increases or whatever they come up with, a handful of proposals, and Congress is going to have to vote that up or down. If your plan is approved, that's what would have to happen.
Sen. GREGG: There's one other element, here. This group will do a lot of public outreach, and they will also have an advisory group which has all the different folks who have an alleged vested interest in these questions, especially in the entitlement side and in the tax policy side. Public outreach is a very important part of this effort.
INSKEEP: What makes you think that your 18 members wouldn't face the same political pressure that 535 members of the House and Senate face right now?
Sen. CONRAD: You know, if we look back in history, we've seen - every time we've faced a fiscal crisis, it took this kind of special procedure to deal with it. And there is no assurance that this would succeed, but at least you're giving a group of people a defined task. You're giving them the responsibility. They would know - unlike other commission approaches or other task force approaches - that the product of their work would come to an up or down vote.
INSKEEP: And you said that the product of their work would require a supermajority in both the House and the Senate in order to pass. Why would you include that requirement? Isn't that going to make it even harder to get things done?
Sen. GREGG: Well, Steve, at the essence of this issue - this is Judd Gregg again - all of these programs affect vast numbers of Americans. And nobody is going to accept a resolution to these programs or an attempt to address the questions which these programs have unless they perceive that the decisions are absolutely fair and absolutely bipartisan.
INSKEEP: But isn't it implied somewhere in a proposal like this that you really don't think your colleagues in the House and Senate are all that serious about reducing the national debt or they're not willing to take a lot of political risks to do it?
Sen. GREGG: Well, I think there's no question that the institution isn't capable of handing these types of issues in regular order. I mean, we've proven that over and over again. Is it the nature of the membership, or is it the nature of the institution? I suppose that could be debated by political scientists forever, but when you run into these types of very complex and difficult questions which affect huge constituencies and where the decisions involve adjusting the benefits package or the tax burden of huge constituencies - so doing it this way appears to me to be the only way you're going to accomplish it. Set up a procedure that leads to policy, which leads to action. And that's our goal.
INSKEEP: Judd Gregg is a Republican senator from New Hampshire. Senator Gregg, thanks very much.
Sen. GREGG: Thank you very much.
INSKEEP: Kent Conrad is a Democratic senator from North Dakota. Senator, thank you.
Sen. CONRAD: You bet. Good to be with you, Steve.
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INSKEEP: Our discussions on the debt this week have sparked a lively debate online at npr.org, which you can join by going to our Web site. And you can also continue listening on the air tomorrow, when we will hear the argument against a Congressional commission to help tackle the deficit.
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