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As federal debt grows, a bipartisan push for another commission to address it

Left: Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Mich. Right: Rep. Scott Peters, D-Calif.. The two are co-sponsoring legislation to create a bipartisan, bicameral commission to address the national debt.
Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images; Patrick Semansky/AP
Left: Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Mich. Right: Rep. Scott Peters, D-Calif.. The two are co-sponsoring legislation to create a bipartisan, bicameral commission to address the national debt.

There's a new push for an old idea on Capitol Hill — creating a bipartisan, bicameral commission to slash the country's debt. The debt has nearly doubled in the past decade — its now more than $33 trillion dollars.

The House duo who are pushing legislation to push an approach that has failed repeatedly warn things will only get worse if Congress postpones action again.

"We just can't wait any longer. The closer we get to that insolvency date, the more certain it is that benefits will be cut and the more expensive it will be to remedy that," California Democrat Scott Peters told NPR. The Congressional Budget office says Social Security will run out of money in a decade, and they estimate a 23 percent cut is looming.

Peters stressed that the the government is paying more on interest on the debt than on Medicaid and programs for children. That means it has less to invest in things like education, and less flexibility for foreign policy matters, like wars in Ukraine and Israel.

Michigan Rep. Bill Huizenga is the Republican leading the push in the House. He said his own colleagues are ignoring the problem.

"There are some folks here who I lovingly call debt deniers," he said. "They kind of have this notion of, 'yeah, don't worry about it, we'll be able to either print our way out of it, or it doesn't really matter what we borrow.'"

But he thinks many of his constituents get the real consequences of piling up debt — like cuts in retirement checks and Medicare benefits. "There is a greater understanding of what's at stake for future generations."

New bill forces Congress to vote on plan developed by commission

Peters and Huizenga teamed up on legislation that would to create a bipartisan debt commission. Under the plan, House and Senate leaders from both parties each appoint three lawmakers and an outside expert of their choosing.

The group would have a year to write a plan to fix the debt. If, after that time, they were able to reach an agreement on a proposal, Congress would be required to vote on it. But not until the brief period of time after the 2024 election and before the next Congress starts, a time known as the lame duck. The goal is to allow people who are finishing up their term to vote.

Huizenga says that means lawmakers would have to go on the record on specific prescriptions for addressing the ballooning debt.

"You can't amend it, and it's gonna be an up or down vote." He added, "it might be a terrible decision versus really bad decision, but you're going to have to make a decision. You're going to have to make a choice one way or the other. To me, that is, that is the trigger that makes the action happen."

In the Senate, Utah Republican Mitt Romney and West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin are pushing a similar proposal before they both retire at the end of next year.

But the last time a bipartisan debt commission tried this back in 2010, they failed to even agree on a plan. The National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform — dubbed "Simpson-Bowles," for the two co-chairs, Wyoming GOP Sen. Alan Simpson and former Clinton White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles, has been the dubious example ever since.

Congress tried again in 2011 to create a new Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, commonly referred to as the Super Committee. That group tried and failed to come up with a bipartisan plan to reduce the deficit by at least $1.5 trillion over a 10 year period. The committee dissolved the following year without advancing any policy.

Many lawmakers from both parties are skeptical a new commission will fare any better.

"There already is a bipartisan forum where these kinds of decisions should get made. It's called Congress, and we shouldn't pass the buck to a commission that we ourselves don't want to do," Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., recently said a House hearing on the need for a fiscal commission

Biden and Trump's views on entitlement reform hang over effort to craft debt proposal

The other hurdle is politics. The two party leaders expected to face off in the 2024 election — President Biden and former President Trump — insist any changes to Social Security are off the table.

Peters and Huizenga say, on this issue, both party leaders are wrong. And they say political fear about even talking about these issues is overblown.

"To give people this impression that if we do nothing that's good for Social Security, it's wrong," " Peters said. "Social Security is, is in the hospital. It needs care. And it's up to us to take that on right now. And we should, we should not be so worried about the election and not so mistrustful of voters that they wouldn't understand."

Both said all ideas need to be on the table — including the same ones from previous commissions - a menu of tax increases, increasing the retirement age, cutting spending on health care, defense.

Huizenga, who is in his 50s, says he thinks about people his age who may be counting on getting a thousand dollars a month from Social Security but will getting hundreds less if nothing changes.

"People that are a couple of years older than me are going to automatically go from if you were getting a thousand bucks a month, now suddenly that's two hundred and thirty three dollars lighter," he said. "That's a significant impact on people."

He added, "let's have the courage to at least have the conversation and give people, the voters, a benefit of the doubt that we can go in and have their best interest on both sides of the aisle to make sure that there is a vital safety net there."

House GOP plans to press for commission

Despite the skepticism, there is growing pressure for a commission to get underway. House Speaker Mike Johnson used his first speech to pledge he'd create a panel "immediately."

"We know this is not going to be an easy task and tough decisions will have to be made, but the consequences if we don't act now are unbearable," Johnson said in October.

There was a push to add the debt commission bill to the government funding bill Congress passed last month, but Johnson opted to leave it out. Multiple House Republican lawmakers say a bill to create the debt commission could be added to a must pass spending bill in January.

Senate leaders haven't weighed in. And it's notable the two people leading the effort there, Romney and Manchin, are both retiring.

Romney warns this is the time to address the problem and lawmakers need to be the ones responsible for a solution. "We all lived in the shadow of the greatest generation if we don't fix this problem, we're going to be know as the worst generation."

The top House Democrat, House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., sidestepped a question last week from NPR on whether he'd support the legislation, saying he's still discussing the issue with his caucus. He acknowledged some Democrats are pushing for it, but quickly pivoted to his concerns about the fact that Republicans support it.

"There are are real concerns that any so-called commission being backed by the extreme MAGA Republicans is part of a back door way of trying to gut Social Security," Jeffries said.

President Biden hasn't said whether he would back the idea. A White House spokesperson raised similar concerns as Jeffries in a statement to NPR. "If a commission like this became a Trojan Horse to cut Social Security and Medicare, we would call it out for threatening the retirement benefits that Americans have spent a lifetime to earn."

Asked about the White House warning, Manchin rips that argument. "Trojan my butt. I'm so sick and tired of hearing this Trojan stuff from anyone in the administration or anyone in any political party."

Peters says they don't need to be scared by past failures and talks about coming up with a "grand bargain," and instead he and Huizenga are just focused on "solving the problem."

"I think people will appreciate so much, that kind of leadership from, from this place. It would so help the credibility of Congress for us to do this on a serious issue," Peters said.

Huizenga said the country can't afford to wait. "Is this really going to be successful since no commission has completely hit it out of the park yet and had the home run? Well, you know, it could be that we, uh, that we don't succeed the way that we hope it does. I would hope we would be able to advance it, though. And, um, and, and sticking with that baseball analogy, you know, let's get a double, let's get a triple, if we can't get that home run, I would love to get the home run, but let's have progress."

--NPR's Franco Ordonez contributed to this report

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Deirdre Walsh is the congress editor for NPR's Washington Desk.
Alejandra Marquez Janse is a producer for NPR's evening news program All Things Considered. She was part of a team that traveled to Uvalde, Texas, months after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary to cover its impact on the community. She also helped script and produce NPR's first bilingual special coverage of the State of the Union – broadcast in Spanish and English.