Congress panels fail to craft deficit-cut ideas

Reuters News
Posted: Oct 13, 2011 3:58 PM
Congress panels fail to craft deficit-cut ideas

By Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A special committee of Congress, struggling to find bipartisan consensus on ways to cut the federal budget, is not getting much help from colleagues who have been asked for their ideas to shrink deficits.

The regular committees of Congress have until Friday to submit recommendations to the "super committee" that is in charge of identifying at least $1.2 trillion in savings over a decade through spending cuts and/or revenue increases.

But Republicans and Democrats on most of the congressional committees have failed to come together on budget cuts, leaving the super committee with a laundry list of partisan suggestions.

"There was one meeting of all the House Ways and Means Democrats and Republicans, but nothing has emanated from that," Representative Sandy Levin, the committee's senior Democrat, told Reuters.

The Ways and Means Committee has oversight of tax and healthcare policy -- two of the biggest issues in super committee deficit-reduction negotiations. The panel's Republican chairman, Dave Camp, is a super committee member.

There is also no agreement between the political parties for another big area of potential savings -- defense spending.

The dearth of bipartisan deficit-reduction ideas from congressional committees underscores the reason the super committee was created in the first place last August: Lawmakers cannot agree on how to fix Washington's annual budget deficits that have hovered around $1.5 trillion.

One of the few bipartisan submissions to the panel came from the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. But there is a hitch: The five-paragraph letter by Democratic Chairwoman Barbara Boxer and James Inhofe, the senior Republican, contained not one penny of deficit-reduction ideas.

Instead they urged the super committee not to cut highway and infrastructure programs. "Congress must, at a minimum, maintain current transportation funding levels," they wrote.


U.S. farm programs are a potential target, with President Barack Obama proposing $33 billion in cuts over a decade.

The Senate Agriculture Committee was trying to find bipartisan agreement on $20 billion to $33 billion in savings, mostly by paring or eliminating some crop subsidies, according to Republican Senator Charles Grassley.

A much larger potential pool of savings is in the defense sector, where annual budgets have skyrocketed over the past decade with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and have exceeded $700 billion.

If a majority of the super committee fails to reach a deal by November 23, automatic spending cuts would be set in motion beginning in 2013, with half of those aimed at defense.

The lead Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, Representative Adam Smith, urged the super committee to "avoid cuts to the national defense" beyond what is already in place. Instead, he proposed "significant revenue increases" -- an idea most Republicans in Congress reject.

Likewise, Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee said the "majority" of savings in the super committee "should be composed of revenues to balance the spending cuts already enacted."

They called for spending $16 billion in programs under their jurisdiction in the near term to help stimulate the economy. But these Democrats also called for some healthcare savings, mostly administrative changes, not benefit cuts.

Asked whether congressional committees were making a challenging deficit-reduction task any easier, Senator Jon Kyl, a Republican super committee member, said, "I think it's mixed. With some, it may not be all that helpful. With others it could well be."

(Editing by Vicki Allen)