Def Com: It’s Alive

Early Coverage of Deficit Commission, from Gloomy to Doomed

The deficit commission created by President Obama holds its first meeting today, and a couple of preview pieces stand out for their strikingly different tones about the panel and its prospects.

The Washington Post sets out pretty plainly the challenge facing the commission:

The gulf between the two parties is vast. No budget commission has managed to spur action since 1983. And a host of interest groups is lining up to rally the public against any solution that involves higher taxes or cuts to favored programs — particularly Social Security, which members of both parties consider the ripest target for compromise. Even supporters of the commission are not optimistic: House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), a vocal advocate, said the most he expects is “a good message with regard to the magnitude of the problem.”

Despite that, the Post piece manages to see at least a glimmer of hope that the commission might actually be able to accomplish something.

But panel members from both parties say the recent experience of Greece, deeply in debt and begging other countries to help pay its bills, provides a vivid incentive to set aside ideological differences and work together. “After stopping a terrorist with a weapon of mass destruction, this is the single most important issue we confront as a nation,” said Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), a commission member.

Republican Sen. Tom Coburn (Okla.), a physician known as “Dr. No” for relentlessly blocking Democratic initiatives, already has sent fellow commission members a binder full of ideas for cutting wasteful programs — low-hanging fruit that he said could build public trust before a debate about higher taxes. Coburn also has spoken with Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union and one of the commission’s most liberal members, and found “a lot of areas where we think we can work together.”

But readers of today’s Wall Street Journal got a very different picture, with a story that focuses on “the difficulties the panel’s members will face in trying to cobble together a bipartisan agreement” and groups on “both ends of the political spectrum [that] are already decrying the panel as unlikely to succeed.”

“We’re afraid the solutions they focus on will be entitlement cuts which are completely unwarranted,” Roger Hickey, co-director for the Campaign for America’s Future, an umbrella organization of liberal groups.

Brian Darling, director of Senate relations at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, said he feared the Obama administration would use the panel to justify tax increases.

“The bottom line is if you give politicians an easy way out they will take it,” Mr. Darling said. “And the easy way out in this case is tax increases and not cutting spending programs.”

It’s true that the panel—formally the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform—is charged with doing something very difficult in a super-charged political environment. As the AP tells it (emphasis mine):

But the options for curbing the deficit—cutting spending on popular entitlement programs and broad-based tax increases—are so politically toxic that the only way Obama and his Democratic allies controlling Congress are willing to take them on during this midterm election year is through the commission.

The commission hasn’t drawn much attention from the press just yet. I sure hope it’s not those toxic fumes that are keeping reporters away.

Most of the limited media coverage so far has been prompted by the anything-but-mild musings of Alan Simpson, the Republican co-chair of the panel.

But the little bit of other real reporting I’ve seen suggests the Journal might be a bit premature in turning out the lights and closing the door on this one.

The Hill’s Walter Alarkon actually asked several Republican members of the commission about their stances, and here’s what he found:

Republicans aren’t ruling out raising taxes or any other option for dealing with the country’s debt problem as they head into the White House fiscal commission’s first meeting.

Sure, there’s a long way to go from not ruling anything out to finding something to agree on. After Tuesday’s debut session, the commission is expected to meet once a month. Hopefully, reporters covering the panel will now start looking beyond Simpson to other members, and to how the commission is actually going to set out doing what the president asked it to do.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Holly Yeager is CJR's Peterson Fellow, covering fiscal and economic policy. She is based in Washington and reachable at