The Future of Fiscal Responsibility

Filed Under (Health Care, Retirement Policy, U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Jeffrey Brown on Feb 23, 2010

On February 18, the President Obama signed an Executive Order establishing the “National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform.”  The Commission will consist of 18 members.  Of these, 6 will be appointed by President Obama (with no more than 4 of the 6 being Democrats).  The remaining 18 will be divided up “3 each” among Democratic and Republican House members and Democratic and Republican Senators. 

The stated mission of this Commission is to identify “policies to improve the fiscal situation in the medium term and to achieve fiscal sustainability over the long run.”

The mission is a critical one.  As I have noted in other posts (see, for example, my post from 2/2/10 on the 2011 budget or my post on 1/14/10 about why deficits matter), the long-term fiscal outlook is dire.   While the short-term deficits are being driven by a combination of recession-induced revenue declines, aggressive spending policies targeted at averting an even worse credit crunch and/or recession (e.g., TARP, stimulus, etc), as well as high levels of spending on Iraq and Afghanistan, the most serious long-term fiscal problems arise as a result of the runaway growth of entitlement programs.  Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are growing faster than the economy as a result of an aging population, rising health care costs, and the important interaction of these two factors. 

Commissions have a long history in the U.S., some of them successful in terms of leading to real changes (e.g., the Greenspan Commission in 1983) and some of them not (e.g., the President’s Commission to Strengthen Social Security in 2001 on whose staff I served.)  One of the features of this new commission is that it will be dominated by sitting members of Congress.  IF (1) these members are ones with real power (e.g., chairs and ranking minority members of the key committees like Senate Finance and House Ways and Means) and IF (2) these members can somehow move beyond ideological bickering and election-year politics and come to some meaningful compromises, THEN such a Commission could have an extraordinarily meaningful and positive impact on our fiscal future.  If, however, they simply resort to their political safe zones – with Republicans calling for balancing budgets solely through spending cuts and Democrats calling for balancing budgets solely through tax increases – then I would not expect much to come out of it.   

The political outlook is not promising, however.  Recall that only a month or so ago – in January 2010 – the Senate failed to garner the 60 votes needed to pass the “Bipartisan Task Force for Responsible Fiscal Action Act of 2010.”  In a blog on this same subject (click here to see it), Stephen Huth notes that “even before members have been appointed, both liberals and conservatives are dooming the work …”

The economic consequences are real.  As the Financial Times reported in January, the credit rating agency Moody’s announced that the U.S. could be at risk of losing its tripple A credit rating in the future unless it took steps to reduce its long-term deficits.  While Treasury Secretary Geithner says the U.S. will “never lose” its top rating, the very fact that the Treasury Secretary has to engage in such a conversation is an indication of just how serious are the risks posed by long-term deficits.  As noted by CNBC, “even if a downgrade in US credit is not imminent, the underlying conditions that raised such fears are worrying investors about what the future holds.” And even if our credit rating is not at risk, the long-run tax burden required to finance projected levels of spending are so enormous that I am afraid we will risk something far more important – our potential for sustained economic growth.

In short, I am in the “glass half empty” camp when it comes to my political assessment of the Commission’s likely impact.  I hope they prove me wrong …