Johnson, others signal support for bipartisan deficit commission despite opposition

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House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., wants to get a bipartisan debt commission immediately.

“The greatest threat to our national security is our nation’s debt,” Johnson said during his first speech in the House chamber after he was elected Speaker. “It’s unsustainable. We have to get the country back on track. We know this is not going to be an easy task and tough decisions will have to be made, but the consequences if we don’t act now are unbearable.”

The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a nonpartisan group based in Washington D.C., called for a bicameral, bipartisan deficit commission in September.

“The national debt is on an unsustainable path, interest costs are exploding, and the Social Security and Medicare trust funds are approaching insolvency,” the group wrote. “A new fiscal commission can help policymakers work on a bipartisan basis to identify the necessary tax and spending changes to help improve the nation’s fiscal outlook.”

The group said everything should be on the table for discussion.

“To tackle our nation’s fiscal, economic, and budgetary challenges, policymakers should establish a bipartisan, bicameral fiscal commission,” the group said. “The commission should put all parts of the budget and tax code on the table to facilitate earnest negotiations. And political leaders should commit to consider its recommendations.”

The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget said such commissions have helped in the past.

“Historically, commissions have helped policymakers to extend the life of Social Security, consolidate military bases, identify government waste, develop frameworks for tax reform, improve homeland security after 9/11, and draw attention to our unsustainable fiscal outlook,” according to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. “Ultimately, Democrats and Republicans will need to come together to consider revenue and spending changes to address our nation’s most serious fiscal challenges. A bipartisan commission can help facilitate these discussions and support efforts to usher in a new era of responsibility and prosperity.”

Not everyone is on board. Washington, D.C.-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonpartisan research and policy institute, said a debt commission is the wrong way to approach the problem. It said the only solution is higher taxes.

“The only way to responsibly reduce deficits without slashing investments in people and the economy or turning our back on commitments made in Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid is to raise revenues as a central component of any plan,” the group said. “But long-standing Republican resistance to raising revenues has prevented a bipartisan agreement to do so.”

Max Richtman, president and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, said such commissions were death panels for the popular entitlement programs.

“The kind of commission Johnson announced is designed to give Congress political cover for cutting Americans’ earned benefits,” he said in a statement. “That is why these commissions have been rightly described as ‘death panels’ for Social Security and Medicare.”

In March, the Social Security Administration reported that Social Security won’t have enough money to pay all beneficiaries the amount they are entitled to starting in 2034, a year earlier than previously expected as the program’s benefits have grown faster than its income. At that time, the annual cost of the program was projected to exceed the annual income in 2023 and remain higher for the 75-year projection period. The total cost of the program started to eclipse income in 2021. Social Security’s cost has exceeded its non-interest income since 2010, according to the Social Security Board of Trustees’ annual report to Congress.

American voters would rather see lawmakers cut government spending than increase taxes. However, new poll results show the cuts voters want would have little effect on the nation’s $33.17 trillion in debt.

The Center Square Voters’ Voice Poll, conducted in conjunction with Noble Predictive Insights, found that 65% of registered voters would opt to cut federal spending to address the growing deficit. Some 14% would rather increase taxes than cut spending. The rest were either unsure or wanted to deal with the deficit in the future. When voters were asked what to cut, it was smaller programs unlikely to affect the nation’s growing debt levels.

Cuts to major spending categories were not popular, according to the poll. Some 6% of registered voters would cut Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. About 12% would cut health care spending other than Medicare and Medicaid, and 21% would cut spending on national defense and the military.

In February, the U.S. Government Accountability Office’s audit of the federal government’s financial statements found it “continues to face an unsustainable long-term fiscal path.”

“The growing debt is a consequence of borrowing to finance increasingly large annual budget deficits,” according to the report. “GAO projects that spending for Social Security, federal health care programs, and all other federal program spending increases more than revenue, resulting in the primary deficit; and net interest spending, which primarily represents the federal government’s cost to service its debt, steadily increases over the next 30 years, further widening the total budget deficits.”

In August, Fitch Ratings, an international credit rating agency, downgraded the U.S. government’s credit rating from the highest level of AAA down one tier to AA+. Fitch pointed to the U.S. government’s high national debt and deficits and an “erosion of governance.”

The U.S. posted a $1.7 trillion deficit for the 2023 fiscal year. The fiscal year 2023 deficit contributed to a national debt of $33.17 trillion through September 2023, according to the Treasury’s Bureau of the Fiscal Service.

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