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'Super committee' on deficit reduction is getting an earful

The congressional panel has received nearly 180,000 submissions from lawmakers, advocacy groups and ordinary Americans as it works to come up with suggestions on how to save $1.5 trillion.

October 19, 2011|By Lisa Mascaro, Tribune Washington Bureau
  • Former Sen. Alan Simpson, left, and former Clinton White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles, co-chairs of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, at a news conference in Washington last month. They called on the "super committee" on deficit reduction to "go big" and develop a large-scale package "sufficient to stabilize the debt as a share of the economy."
Former Sen. Alan Simpson, left, and former Clinton White House Chief of… (Alex Wong, Getty Images )

Reporting from Washington — Oil lobbyists say now is not the time to end tax loopholes for big oil. Seniors want Social Security protected. Budget watchdogs want nothing less than a total revamp of federal tax and spending policies.

The congressional "super committee" on deficit reduction has received nearly 180,000 submissions from lawmakers, advocacy groups and ordinary Americans as it pursues its daunting goal of recommending $1.5 trillion in federal deficit reductions by next month.

"End the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan," wrote the House Progressive Caucus.

Stop tax subsidies for coal, ethanol and agriculture, suggested Taxpayers for Common Sense.

Repeal the new healthcare law, offered the tea party group Americans for Prosperity.

Protect the poor, wrote a coalition of faith leaders: "Ensure that our struggling sisters and brothers receive the assistance they desperately need to live in dignity, and in some cases simply to live."

Individual lawmakers — and former lawmakers — also shared a few thoughts, as the committee has opened its website to public suggestions.

The problem could be solved by cutting government waste, offered Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin. Among his targets: the government's limousine fleet and the $2.6 million the Homeland Security Department spends annually to hire mascots to appear at family-friendly outreach events.

The man Johnson ousted from office last fall, former Democratic Sen. Russell Feingold, had another idea. His Progressives United group sent more than 50,000 emails pressing for the "Buffett rule," based on billionaire Warren Buffett's assertion that the wealthy should pay at least as high a tax rate as lower-income individuals.

Then there are those who seek to protect or improve what they already have.

One group is using the occasion to fight for a repeal of the estate tax. The National Assn. of Chain Drug Stores wants to ensure that the super-committee does not reduce the Medicare reimbursement rates for diabetes-testing supplies.

The AARP has gone a step further, hitting the airwaves with a national ad urging seniors to protest cuts to Medicare and Social Security.

The super-committee has been meeting behind closed doors for weeks. The 12 lawmakers made a pact to not breathe a word about what they are doing.

Asked Wednesday how the panel was progressing, super-committee member Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) ducked into a lunch meeting saying, "I'd just rather not talk about that."

President Obama has urged the super-committee to think big, a theme that has emerged across the political spectrum. Budget hawks, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and a bipartisan group of more than one-third of the Senate have urged the committee to reduce deficits beyond its $1.5-trillion mandate.

Not all submissions, however, go through the official channels. Lobbyists are in frequent contact with super-committee members and their staffs, a practice that open-government advocates bemoan as special access.

The American Petroleum Institute, which is fighting Democratic-led efforts to close a tax loophole for oil companies, prefers personal contact and declined to submit a formal recommendation to the committee.

"Our conversations have been very productive," said API senior tax advisor Brian Johnson.

The large tea party organization FreedomWorks is bypassing the super-committee and plans to offer its $9-trillion deficit reduction plan directly to lawmakers and the public a week before the committee's deadline.

"We're less interested in trying to shape the super-committee product than compete with it," said Dean Clancy, a FreedomWorks vice president.

With one month remaining to complete its task, the panel of six Democratic and six Republican lawmakers hopes to succeed where so many before it have failed.

There's a good deal of skepticism that a consensus can be forged. Republicans have refused to raise taxes to bring down deficits and Democrats are unwilling to cut Medicare or other cherished programs without additional revenue. Just one lawmaker would be needed to reach across party lines, but that appears to be a long shot.

The silence from the committee has drawn criticism from those who prefer a more open government. But others see hope in the mere fact that the committee is still meeting and has not yet imploded.

lmascaro@tribune.com

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