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Bipartisan support for fiscal commission focusing on massive federal budget deficit

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Signs of bipartisanship emerged Wednesday from a House Budget Committee hearing focused on a fiscal commission that would address the nation’s deficit.

The House Budget Committee discussed the pros and cons of a bipartisan, bicameral fiscal commission. While Democrats and Republicans have different ideas about how to address the longstanding issue, members of both parties indicated support for such a commission.

U.S. Rep Jodey Arrington, R-Texas, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, said at the least, a fiscal commission would ring bells.

“We’ve got to sound the alarm because we’ve been sleepwalking off the fiscal cliff,” he said. “When the dominos start falling it is hard to put all the pieces together again.”

The nation’s growing debt is costing taxpayers. The cost of borrowing money is taking up a larger share of the federal budget, which along with the rising costs of Social Security and Medicare, are driving up the national deficit.

Interest costs on the country’s $33 trillion debt increased 23% to $879 billion in fiscal 2023. That’s a record high. Interest costs accounted for 14% of total federal spending as of September 2023. The cost of maintaining that debt is expected to grow. The Congressional Budget Office released projections in June that showed interest costs would “exceed all mandatory spending other than that for the major health care programs and Social Security by 2027, all discretionary outlays by 2047, and all spending on Social Security by 2051.”

Arrington said a debt commission won’t be a panacea, but could help frame the issue and build support for action in Congress.

However, some members remain doubtful that a commission can get anything done. And some past commissions have failed to produce results.

“I am deeply skeptical of a fiscal commission,” U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Ma., said. “First, there is already a bipartisan forum where these kinds of decisions should get made: It’s called Congress. And we shouldn’t pass the buck to a fiscal commission to do the work that we ourselves don’t want to do. If we don’t want to do it, maybe we should leave.”

Others had more optimism.

“The best thing that we can do to protect Medicare and Social Security is to act now,” U.S. Rep. Scott Peters, D-Calif., said. “A commission gives us a fact-driven venue, instead of some waiting-until-the-last-minute, backdoor, 11th-hour deal between party leaders.”

U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, who is not seeking another term, told the committee that Congress must act before the nation’s debt gets out of hand.

“If we don’t fix this mess that our country is in, it is hard for me to imagine a circumstance where America is able to continue to lead the world,” Romney said. “If we’re spending more on interest than we’re spending on defense, then how in the world are we going to keep up with China?”

Romney said he was committed to a commission that would put all options for spending and revenue on the table, but said there’s no appetite for cutting Social Security benefits on either side of the aisle.

U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., said tackling the problem will carry political risk.

“We’ve never been in this position before, we have never come close to this, so we got to figure out how to do this, put the people on that aren’t afraid to do something right and I think it will be the most rewarding thing we do for our country,” he said.

Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, called Wednesday’s hearing welcoming.

“Our country is up against incredibly steep fiscal challenges in the years ahead, and what we need now is the kind of thoughtful and earnest leadership so often missing in Washington. That’s what makes today’s hearing so refreshing: A bipartisan fiscal commission would allow serious leaders to put everything on the table – taxes, spending, and our critically important trust funds – and do what’s right for our long-term health,” she said. “Commissions don’t make everyone happy, but they can help set us on a better fiscal course. We commend lawmakers who stand up in the name of bipartisanship to enact a fiscal commission.”

David Walker, former Comptroller General and advisory board member of Main Street Economics, said a fiscal commission is needed.

“It is unrealistic to expect Congress to make the tough fiscal choices needed to restore fiscal sanity without a statutory Fiscal Stability (Debt) Commission that will actively engage the American public and make a package of recommendations that will receive an up or down vote,” he said in a statement. “Doing nothing is not an option. We need a Fiscal Stability (Debt) Commission as soon as possible to defuse of federal debt bomb.”

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