OPINION: Empower panel to solve debt

The Gang of Six has unfortunately dispersed. Vice President Biden’s group has not and probably will not coalesce, and the president, after receiving a substantive and action-oriented proposal from his own commission, disappeared.

Thus the issue of our nation’s march towards the debt status of Greece goes unresolved and unaddressed.

This is not good. Lack of leadership, bipartisanship and positive action can only result in our excessive deficits and debt compounding at an even faster rate.

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Some have tried to step into the waters of responsible action only to be confronted with the demagoguery of those who make a profession of poisoning wells. They do so in the name of some motherhood issue that cloaks their real goal, which is to permanently perpetuate themselves and their fundraising machines by keeping alive issues that would be 
totally resolvable if good will were 
allowed to prevail.

At the top of that list is, of course, Social Security, followed closely by Medicare and tax reform.

All those issues must be addressed if we are to avoid our otherwise-inevitable federal fiscal meltdown. But they also are the chosen weapons of political posturers and frauds who do not want solutions, only issues with which to score points from which they can raise money.

Is there a way around this self-inflicted inertia? Can there be a process that allows progress on this critical threat to our nation’s well-being, or are we simply destined to go further and further into debt until we implode?

There is a path forward. To date, the courses followed have failed for a couple of reasons. Some were presented as partisan initiatives and were thus immediately demonized by the professional polarizers. This was the case with House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) initiative, which, ironically, had its roots in the bipartisan work of Ryan and former Office of Management and Budget Director Alice Rivlin. But because it was presented as the Republican House plan, it became an easy target for those who place a much higher value on political gain than on our nation’s well-being.

Other proposals have come from groups that are well-intentioned but have no force behind their ideas. The fiscal commission led by former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) and former White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles falls in this category. It put forward a truly creative and broad outline to tame the growth rate of our debt but, because it did not have the force of law behind it, President Obama could and did walk away from it, along with the House and Senate leadership.

But the path forward is still right there, waiting to be chosen.

First, it must involve bipartisanship. It is clear that neither the American people, who are suspicious of any action on major entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security, nor the political process will allow anything to move that is not deemed fair, and fairness by definition requires bipartisanship. This means you need a group of senior members of Congress and the administration that meets and that is evenly balanced.

Second, the group must meet under an act of Congress, a law with statutory authority, and its recommendations must be subject to an up-and-down, unamendable vote along the lines of the base-closing commission. Without statutory authority, the proposals will not move forward, as was seen with the Simpson-Bowles plan, and it must be unamendable so members cannot avoid the responsibility of their action.

Third, the group must have a target. Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) have a bill that sets the target at approximately 20 percent of gross domestic product  for both spending and taxes. Simpson-Bowles in their plan set the target at 21.5 percent of GDP.

Such a statutory target makes it clear that the group will have to produce significant real savings and some revenue — the only way you can get from here to there. The goal forces real action.

Creating this group, which is to some extent a follow-on to the Simpson-Bowles fiscal commission but significantly refined and focused by being made statutory with a specific goal, should be a pre-condition to raising the debt ceiling.

The final vote on this group’s report should occur by Dec. 31. That way we can start 2012 with America having a clearer, stronger and better future because Congress and the president have done their job and started to get our fiscal house in order.

Judd Gregg is a former governor and three-term senator from New Hampshire who served as chairman and ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee and also as ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Foreign Operations subcommittee.