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On tackling debt: Some say 'Just do it'

By Jeanne Sahadi, CNNMoney.com senior writer


NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Left to their own devices, lawmakers won't successfully deal with the country's spiraling debt situation. That's the opinion of some key members agitating for a special commission to force the hand of Congress.

"Congress is not willing to take short-term pain for long-term pain," Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, told a Senate Budget Committee hearing Tuesday.

How much would you contribute to pay down the nation's debt?
  • Less than $100
  • More than $100
  • My estate, when I die
  • You've got to be kidding

"Pain" in this context is defined as Congress enacting spending cuts and tax increases across the board to rein in the nation's massive debt load.

And the country's long-term debt load is massive: The interest on it alone could total $4.8 trillion between 2010 and 2019.

The proposed solution: "Institutional insurrection," as Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., put it. "Business as usual in Washington is not going to solve the problem."

Specifically, Bayh and others are proposing the creation of a bipartisan commission that would come up with ways to cut the deficit and then propose legislation on which lawmakers would vote "yes" or "no." Period.

To further protect the legislation from becoming a political grab bag - or punching bag - some lawmakers, like Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., the top Republican on the budget committee, would like to bar lawmakers from adding amendments to any such deficit-reduction bill.

"We need this decision-forcing mechanism to do what's right for the country," said Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn.

One reason for the push to form a commission by early 2010 is that the economic and financial collapse pummeled revenues, worsening the deficit and accelerating concerns about what had been longer-term shortfalls.

"What used to be a three-decade problem is now something that looks to be a one-decade problem," said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a former director of the Congressional Budget Office.

Demonstrating seriousness in addressing the problem could do a lot to secure the U.S. reputation as a safe bet with foreign creditors, who despite soaring deficits have nevertheless continued buying U.S. debt throughout the crisis at very low interest rates.

On the face of it, it seems baffling. But "they are implicitly counting on Americans to solve the problem," Holtz-Eakin said.

So the country now has one decade to do two things, he added: not disappoint creditors and genuinely start the wheels in motion to address the problem.

What a commission would do

Reining in the debt will take some time since a host of measures are required and they would phase in over time. But the decisions would need to be made in advance and adhered to by Congress.

The commission would, in essence, make a lot of the hard choices lawmakers have thus far avoided: how to rein in spending on Medicare and Social Security; how high to raise taxes on everyone, not just those making $250,000 or more; and which government funded programs to cut in part or altogether.

"I don't want reductions in social programs. But I recognize there's no alternative. I don't want to raise revenue. But there is no alternative," said Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., chairman of the budget committee.

Of course, Congress wouldn't be removed from the picture. In fact, many who support the idea of a commission say the majority, if not all of its members, should be a select group of Democrats and Republicans from the House and Senate. They in turn would have to sell the commission's ideas to their colleagues in both chambers and present a united front.

"If this commission does its job, it will be very unpopular," said Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn.

Hardly music to a politician's ears. But then again, neither are soaring interest rates, a collapsing dollar or, as Cooper put it, a recession that will make the current one "look like a sideshow." Those are the kinds of things that could happen if creditors who buy U.S. debt lose faith that the country will adequately deal with its debt problems.

There's not unanimous support in Congress by any means for a deficit-reduction commission. But some of the lawmakers pushing for one have also suggested that they won't vote for an increase to the debt ceiling - currently set at $12.1 trillion - unless there is legislation in the works to create a commission.

The latest reading from Treasury is that the country's debt load will pierce the ceiling sometime in the second half of December.

It's hard to say if there would be a sufficient number of votes to defeat an increase to the ceiling. As a practical matter, it's unlikely Congress would withhold the increase because of the dire consequences of piercing the ceiling.

But there may be enough votes to force Senate leaders to take the commission proposal seriously.

"There are just enough of us who are not going to vote to increase the national debt ... unless there is some fundamental reform and a credible reason to believe -- not just lip service or empty promises -- that things will get better on the fiscal front," Bayh told Congress DailyTo top of page

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