A hearing Tuesday before the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction — dubbed the "supercommittee" — was supposed to be about the history of the current debt crisis. Almost nothing causes more partisan bickering than that. Each party is fervent in its belief about who drove the government into the ditch — namely, the other guys.
On Tuesday, however, Doug Elmendorf, the man who runs the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO), immediately dispensed with the question of blame and laid out the options for the supercommittee.
"Putting the federal budget on a sustainable path will require significant changes in spending policies, significant changes in tax policies, or both," Elmendorf said.
He said the committee must answer three questions: how much money the government is going to save; how quickly it is going to do it; and what mix of spending reductions or tax increases it is going to use. He refused to allow the committee to lose focus.
At one point, Arizona Republican Sen. Jon Kyl suggested that the government might raise money by tackling Medicare fraud or by selling public lands.
"I'm not against our working with you on any issue that you want us to work with you on," Elmendorf said. "But there's no evidence that suggests that this sort of effort can represent a large share of the $1.2 trillion or $1.5 trillion in savings for this committee."
Trillions with a T, he reminded them.
Another argument Elmendorf short-circuited was about timing. Generally, these days, Republicans argue that Congress should cut spending now to fix the budget. Democrats want to increase spending now, to spur growth in the economy.
"Cut taxes or increase spending in the near term, but over the medium and longer term, move in the opposite direction and cut spending or raise taxes," Elmendorf suggested.
It may sound like a paradox, he said, but it's not. Elmendorf said he and his colleagues at the CBO believe lawmakers can stimulate the economy now, with government spending and lower taxes, then rein it all in later, to fix the budget.
That idea slashes across partisan boundaries: Do what the Democrats want, then do what the GOP wants. He even had a solution for Republicans worried that their phase could be put off: Write their part into the law now.
"If specific changes are enacted into law this year, then I think there's a much greater chance that they will take effect when the time comes, [rather] than if what's enacted into law this year is simply a set of objectives for total amounts of spending," he said.
The supercommittee is supposed to write its proposal by Thanksgiving, but Elmendorf warned the members that if they're really serious, they should send him the details by early November so that the CBO has a few weeks to crunch the numbers.
The supercommittee members might just have a superhero at their disposal — a man who can bend steel, or at least the political equivalent. That is, if they choose to listen to him.
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