The National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, created by President Barack Obama in January of this year, was not supposed to release its recommendations for several weeks yet. Its two chairmen however, former Republican Senator Alan Simpson and Democrat Erskine Bowles, who was President Bill Clinton's White House chief of staff in the 1990s, came out with proposals this week already. They have stressed that theirs are personal recommendations, not the findings of the commission as such which includes eighteen members in total, among them Congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin who has previously proposed entitlement reform in order to balance the federal budget. Partisan deadlock may have compelled the chairmen to publish their own ideas after almost ten months of discussion.
Although the president has promised to preserve Social Security "forever", describing privatization as "an ill conceived idea that would add trillions of dollars to our budget deficit while tying your benefits to the whims of Wall Street traders and the ups and downs of the stock market," America's pension system is in dire need of reform. Medicare as well as Social Security will bankrupt without intervention.
In order to save the programs and achieve "nearly $4 trillion in deficit reduction through 2020" while reducing the deficit to just over 2 percent of GDP by 2015, the chairmen of the debt commission, in a draft put out by them Wednesday, suggest to raise the retirement age by one month every two years after it reaches 67 under current law. The retirement age would then reach 68 around 2050 and 69 by 2075. There would be a "hardship exemption" however for those unable to work beyond the age of 62. Other proposals include:
- Granting retirees the choice of collecting half of their benefits early and the other half at a later age to support phased retirement options;
- Asking doctors and other health care providers to slow the increase in health care costs;
- Reducing farm subsidies by $3 billion a year;
- Freezing federal salaries and government employee bonuses;
- Eliminating congressional earmarks
Several of the Democrats who sit on the commission have already voiced their opposition to these supposedly radical proposals. They warn that there will be no fourteen vote majority for many of these notions.
Several dozen of Democratic legislators immediately released a joint statement after the commission chairmen released their findings, urging the president to protect Social Security. "If any of the commission's recommendations cut or diminish Social Security in any way, we will stand firmly against them," they have pledged.
Democrat Raúl Grijalva of Arizona, who is considered one of the most liberal of congressman, complained that "we have waited through nine months of backroom negotiations only to be told that the American people will have to tighten their belts another notch while defense spending continues to grow and corporate bonuses continue to expand." Congress should have a "realistic, productive conversation" about deficit reduction, he believes. "Instead, we're debating a proposal from a commission dedicated to cutting crucial social programs and reducing corporate and upper income taxes at the same time."
The commission chairmen have proposed to reduce income tax rates but attest that the losses in revenue can be offset by closing tax loopholes and eliminating scores of tax deductions which currently make the US tax code incredibly complicated.
According to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, who will lose her job next year since Republicans regained control of the lower chamber of Congress in this November's midterm elections, pension reform as considered by the commission is utterly unacceptable. "Any final proposal from the commission," she has declared, "must do what is right for our seniors, who are counting on the bedrock promises of Social Security and Medicare."
Conservatives on the commission, including Paul Ryan, have cautiously praised the chairmen for their suggestions. Although Republicans are divided on entitlement and earmark reform, fiscal hawks as Ryan would rather reform be more comprehensive. His "Roadmap for America's Future," which is a detailed plan to restore balance to the federal budget, represents, as then Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag put it in February of this year, a "dramatically different approach in which much more risk is loaded onto individuals." Congressman Jeb Hensarling of Texas and Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma are also renowned for their opposition to deficit spending but the other five Republican members of the commission may be more inclined to compromise. They have all spoken out against raising taxes however.
At a press conference Wednesday afternoon the two commission chairmen acknowledged the difficulty of reforming entitlement programs, something that has long been anathema to lawmakers from both sides. "We'll both be in a witness protection program when this is all over," joked Simpson. Bowles added that they weren't asking anyone to vote for their plan. "This is a starting point," he explained.
Originally published at the Atlantic Sentinel, November 10, 2010.