Groups line up against fiscal commission

Interest groups from both the right and left are trying to throw sand in the gears of the White House fiscal commission.

The leaders of the White House panel — tasked by President Obama with crafting a plan to cut the growth of the $13 trillion debt — have said they are considering a mixture of spending cuts and tax increases to restore the nation’s fiscal health.

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Groups that have been fighting tax increases and spending cuts for years are ramping up their efforts to ward off the possible policy shifts.

Americans for Tax Reform (ATR), the organization led by conservative activist Grover Norquist, is reminding the six Republican lawmakers on the fiscal commission of their pledge not to raise taxes.

Spending cuts — such as rooting out nearly $100 billion annually in improper entitlement benefit payments and almost $300 billion in Pentagon cost overruns — should be made before any tax increases should be considered, Norquist’s group has said.

“Any time that a pledge signer is starting to waver, or thinking about not signing the pledge because of the deficit, we’ll throw this in their face,” said Ryan Ellis, ATR’s tax policy director.

Norquist and his allies have gone to lengths to punish pledge-breakers in the past, running ads and op-eds attacking them in their home districts and states. In 1990, after a handful of Republicans in Congress and the George H.W. Bush administration backed an increase in income and payroll taxes to close the deficit, The Wall Street Journal ran the pledge-breakers’ names in an editorial.

So far, commission members and Obama are insisting that “everything is on the table” for the fiscal panel to consider.

“We’re really just still in a discussion phase — we haven’t got a formal alternative — so it’s really premature to lay down markers,” said Rep. Dave Camp (Mich.), one of three House Republicans on the panel.

“Look, I don’t like taxes,” Camp added. “I’ve never voted for them in my 20 years in Congress. But I think to lay down markers now would really prevent the commission from doing its work, and we really want to make sure the commission does its work.”

Obama has asked the 18-member commission to produce a deficit-cutting plan by Dec. 1, and leaders in Congress have pledged to call floor votes on any plan that emerges. For the recommendations to make it out of the commission, 14 of the members must vote for it, a hurdle that ensures any plan must secure bipartisan support in order to get a vote in Congress.

On the left, unions and senior groups see the fiscal commission as a threat to entitlement programs, fearing that the panel will recommend changes to Social Security that Republicans have long sought.

About 50 organizations, including several unions and MoveOn, are staging a campaign called Strengthen Social Security, which has sent staffers armed with handheld camcorders to interview commission members as they come in and out of closed-door meetings.

One video seized upon by liberal blogs shows a staffer pressing Alan Simpson, the Republican co-chairman of the commission, on why the panel is discussing Social Security reforms when the program has enough money to pay out benefits in full until 2037.

One member of that coalition, the Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, has aired radio ads in Washington opposing entitlement changes such as increasing the retirement age and indexing benefits to income and inflation. The group released a poll last week showing that more than three-quarters of the country opposes cuts to entitlement benefits to pay for the deficit.

The coalition’s message to lawmakers is, “Don’t cut benefits — focus on other ways to reduce the deficit,” said Roger Hickey, co-director of the Campaign for America’s Future, a union-backed policy think tank.

Fiscal watchdogs with deep pockets have given aid to the commission to help counter its critics.

The Peter G. Peterson Foundation and other nonpartisan groups have sponsored events off Capitol Hill attended by commission members to raise the public profile of the debt problem. To get around its bare-bones budget, the commission’s policy staff has borrowed experts from the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, centrist Democratic Leadership Council and left-leaning Economic Policy Institute.

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But because of the pressure from both sides, Simpson and Erskine Bowles, the commission’s Democratic co-chairman, have warned that the chances of succeeding are small.

Washington interests “either pass or kill a bill with a deft blend of emotion, fear, guilt or racism,” Simpson says at each fiscal commission meeting.

“Anybody who thinks we have a big chance to get this done is crazy,” Bowles said last week.