Fiscal panel poised to target earmarks

At its final public meeting, the White House fiscal commission on Wednesday pledged to target pork-barrel spending as one part of a plan to cut into massive deficits. 

“If anybody thinks they’re going to get out of this unscathed, they’re wrong,” said former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.), the commission’s co-chairman.

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The commission, whose goal is to produce a plan to cut trillion-dollar deficits to sustainable levels by 2015, said such spending doesn’t make political or fiscal sense because of the country’s debt, which stands at $13.5 trillion. 

“Our problem is we’ve put parochial concerns ahead of the long-term interests of the country,” said Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), one of the more vocal members of the panel.

“We could actually start a trend ... so we could all be dedicated to be trying to do the best right thing for the long term in the country in the whole,” Coburn added.

But while indicating they would crack down on earmarks, commission members acknowledged the resistance they’ll face. 

“We have particular interests, each and every one of us,” said Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.). “When it’s time to take on your interest, it’s OK. When it’s time to take on my interest, no way.” 

A group of lobbyists and public-interest advocates, including Public Citizen and Taxpayers for Common Sense, is pushing to reform the earmark process in the face of an assault on it from Congress and leaders of both parties. They want to clean up the process, rather than scrap it, arguing that getting rid of earmarks would give the executive branch too much control over spending authority.

Any savings from earmarks would be a drop in the bucket compared to potential savings from entitlement reform, and commission members, along with President Obama, have said that everything should be on the table when the commission crafts its recommendations.

The remarks Wednesday came after the panel heard a presentation from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) on possible ways to save federal money. The nonpartisan office noted that the federal government loses about $99 billion annually in improper payments and $345 billion in taxes that aren’t collected but should be under the law. 

The GAO said the government might also find savings by scrutinizing or reforming costly federal programs, including tax expenditures that add up to about $1 trillion annually, $9 billion in annual oil and gas royalties and $5 billion in yearly direct farm subsidies. 

Budget experts, including those at the Congressional Budget Office and the White House, have attributed the expected rise in debt over the next few decades largely to the rise in federal healthcare spending, not spending on discretionary federal programs.

Commission members said that increasing government oversight to help limit waste should be part of the answer.

Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, said that he now supports a two-year budget process after previously defending the current annual system. He said that Congress could write a budget in one year and then use the off year to review programs. 

The proposal, which has been pushed by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and other Republicans in the past, received more Democratic backing Wednesday from the panel’s other co-chairman, Erskine Bowles, and union leader Andy Stern.

The Wednesday meeting was the commission’s last before Dec. 1, when it’s scheduled to hold a final vote on its recommendations. House and Senate leaders have pledged to call floor votes on those recommendations if they get the support of 14 of the panel’s 18 members. 

Commissioners said they’ve yet to consider concrete proposals, waiting until after the midterm campaigns to start in earnest.