President orders debt panel, names chairmen

By Jeanne Sahadi, senior writer


NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- President Obama issued an executive order on Thursday that formally creates a bipartisan fiscal commission, a first step to forcing painful decisions needed to get the U.S. debt load under control.

Raising taxes, cutting spending and reforming Medicare and Social Security are all fair game, and thought to be impossible without the backing of both Republicans and Democrats.

debt_commission_100218a.03.jpg
President Obama signs the executive order creating a bipartisan fiscal commission. Standing behind him are the commission's co-chairmen - Erskine Bowles (l) and Alan Simpson (r).

"Everything's on the table. That's how this thing is going to work," the president said immediately after signing the order.

The commission must deliver a report to the president by Dec. 1 that makes recommendations for bringing annual deficits to no more than 3% of the size of the economy, as measured by gross domestic product, or GDP. Currently annual deficits for the next decade are on track to be well above that level.

The commission will also be expected to suggest ways to permanently lower the country's total debt - currently expected to hit 77% of GDP in 2020, according to the White House Budget Office.

The president formally named the two co-chairmen he has chosen for the commission: Alan Simpson, a former Republican senator from Wyoming, and Erskine Bowles, a Democrat who served as White House chief of staff under President Clinton.

He said the two men "are taking on the impossible: they're going to try to restore reason to the fiscal debate."

The commission will have 18 members. Six of them, including the co-chairmen, will be chosen by the president. Another six of them, divided evenly between the parties, will be chosen by the majority and minority leaders in the House. And six of them will be chosen by the leaders of both parties in the Senate.

It's not clear yet when the Democratic leadership will name their choices.

It was also not clear before the president signed the executive order whether House and Senate Republicans would even choose to participate.

After the President signed the order, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told CNNMoney.com that McConnell will name three Senate Republicans to the panel. But his instructions to them will be to focus more on spending cuts than tax increases.

"After trillions in new and proposed spending, Americans know our problem is not that we tax too little, but that Washington spends too much - that should be the focus of this commission," McConnell said in a statement.

A spokesman for House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, gave some indication that House Republicans might participate but didn't say it was confirmed.

"We still haven't heard from the president on our proposal to start cutting spending right now," the spokesman said. "That doesn't mean we won't participate in this commission, but it does indicate that Washington Democrats aren't serious yet about shutting down their spending binge."

Earlier this month, Boehner had asked the president if he would use certain legislative procedures to ensure that the House cannot ignore White House spending cut proposals.

Deficit hawks say that the country cannot adequately address the looming fiscal shortfalls without addressing both taxes and spending.

Tough calls ahead

Since the commission is being created by presidential order and not by statute, Congress isn't legally required to vote on its recommendations. The Senate last month voted down a statutory commission which would have guaranteed that the commission's recommendations would be given an up-or-down vote in the House and Senate - no amendments, no filibuster.

Nevertheless there is a chance that recommendations from the presidential commission will be given serious consideration. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., have given their assurances -- in writing -- that they will bring the group's recommendations to the floor for procedural votes before the end of the year. The House will only take them up, however, if they pass the Senate first.

Voting for the commission's recommendations will likely be a tough pill for both parties. But the idea behind a bipartisan panel is that it can give political cover to lawmakers since no recommendation can be made unless it has the support of 14 of the 18 commissioners.

Whether lawmakers choose to face the challenge of addressing the country's long-term fiscal challenges head-on is a matter of political will. So far that will has not been in evidence. It remains to be seen whether a bipartisan commission dedicated to the task can help turn that around.

"This is not a Republican or Democratic problem - this is a challenge for America," Bowles said in a White House statement announcing the commission.

Even if the panel's work can't push Congress to overcome its inertia on the issue, Simpson said, "The American people are going to know about a lot more where we are headed with an honest appraisal of our situation."  To top of page

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