WASHINGTON — The leaders of the bipartisan deficit commission are baldly calling out the budget myths of both political parties, challenging lawmakers to engage in the "adult conversation" they say they want.
Their plan announced Wednesday — mixing painful cuts to Social Security and Medicare with big tax increases — seems to have no chance of enactment as written, certainly not as a whole. But the commission's high profile will make it harder for Republicans and Democrats to simply keep reciting their tax and spending talking points without acknowledging the real sacrifices that progress against government deficits would demand.
It's time for both conservatives and liberals to "put up or shut up," says Jon Cowan, head of the centrist-Democratic group Third Way, which praised the bold new proposals and urged politicians to show courage. Republicans failed to produce their often-promised deficit reductions when they controlled the government, Cowan said, and Democrats refuse to acknowledge that entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare must be trimmed.
President Barack Obama, in Seoul, South Korea, declined to discuss the specifics but said Thursday: "We're going to have to take actions that are difficult and we're going to have to tell the truth the American people." He said there has been a lot of rhetoric about the nation's debt and annual budget deficits but "a lot of the talk didn't match up with reality.
As amply demonstrated by the panel's co-chairmen — former Clinton White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles and retired Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo. — taming the deficit requires real pain all around. The co-chairmen's ideas, which they agree are a starting point, include calls to raise the Social Security retirement age and reduce scheduled benefit increases, whack the Pentagon budget, cut farm subsidies and increase the federal tax on gasoline by 15 cents a gallon.
The most vocal critics of the plan, which would cut spending by $3 for every $1 raised through higher taxes, are Democrats. Many will strongly oppose the bid to slowly raise the Social Security retirement age to 69. Republicans, especially three commission members appointed by incoming House Speaker John Boehner, are likely to balk at tax increases
Opinion is split on whether 14 of the panel's 18 members will ultimately agree on a plan by Dec. 1. That's the number needed to demonstrate bipartisan support and send the measure to the Senate and, maybe, the House for a vote. Commission members are unlikely to produce actual legislation that could become law. But they could bless a set of recommendations that would put lawmakers on record for or against a serious deficit-reduction recipe.