Obama sidesteps Congress to create bipartisan debt panel

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 16, 2010 

WASHINGTON — University of North Carolina President Erskine Bowles, a Democrat, and former Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson, a Republican, will lead a bipartisan commission to recommend ways to rein in the nation's escalating federal debt under an executive order that President Barack Obama plans to sign on Thursday.

Obama turned to the executive order after Congress last month failed to pass its own bipartisan plan creating a debt commission.

The most recent estimates put the annual federal budget deficit at $1.56 trillion this year, and the national debt at $8.8 trillion, or 60 percent of gross domestic product, the annual value of the nation's goods and services. The debt-to-GDP ratio is expected to climb to 72.9 percent by 2015, and history suggests that such huge debt slows a nation's economic growth and hurts its standard of living.

White House aides declined Tuesday to discuss the specifics of the forthcoming order, such as what sort of teeth the commission would have and whether it will mirror the plan that stalled in Congress.

Under that plan, the panel would have had 10 Democrats and eight Republicans. If 14 of those 18 members agreed on a debt-reduction plan, Congress would have had to vote on its provisions, with three-fifths support needed for passage.

A debt commission with teeth could force congressional votes on changes in politically sensitive programs that lawmakers are traditionally reluctant to change — and that are headed toward insolvency — such as Medicare and Social Security.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said recently that he expected Obama to model any commission he appointed after that plan. The plan by Sens. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., and Judd Gregg, R-N.H., got 53 votes in the 100-member Senate, but under the Senate's rules, that was seven short of what was needed.

Democratic leaders in the House of Representatives have indicated that they'd be willing to hold votes on any debt reduction recommendations an Obama commission forwarded to Congress — but only if the Senate voted first.

Lawmakers on Tuesday indicated that they're awaiting more details from the White House before endorsing anything.

In Bowles and Simpson, Obama is tapping two Washington veterans, both of whom were deeply involved in reaching bipartisan budget deals in the 1990s.

Simpson, 78, was a three-term senator who worked across the aisle with Democrats and chaired a Senate subcommittee on Social Security. He's also a longtime friend of former Vice President Dick Cheney, a top critic of the Obama administration.

Bowles, 64, was President Bill Clinton's chief of staff from 1996 to 1998 and a key player in getting a 1997 bipartisan budget agreement. He also previously headed the Small Business Administration and was a U.S. Senate candidate in 2004. Bowles announced Friday that he'll retire later this year as president of UNC.

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