The federal debt tops $34 trillion and some in Congress want a commission to find ways to tackle it

Rep. Jodey Arrington , R-Texas, speaks at a news conference following the markup of H.R. 5779, the Fiscal Commission Act of 2023, on Capitol Hill Thursday, Jan. 18, 2024, in Washington. (AP Photo/Yuri Gripas)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — A bill to create a bipartisan commission that would tackle the nation’s soaring debt and make policy recommendations to Congress won approval Thursday from a House committee.

House Republicans are making the bill a priority, and the chairman of the House Budget Committee said “everything’s on the table” regarding possible action to slow the federal government’s increasing level of debt, now at more than $34 trillion. Many Democrats see the commission as an attempt to force cuts to Social Security and Medicare.

The bill, approved by the GOP-majority committee by a 22-12 vote, would ask the commission to recommend ways to balance the budget at the earliest reasonable date and to improve the long-term solvency of Medicare, Social Security and other programs paid for through trust funds. The commission would have 16 members: 12 from Congress, evenly divided by party, and four outside experts who would not have voting power.

Sens. Joe Manchin, D-WV, and Mitt Romney, R-Utah, have sponsored a companion measure in the Senate.

Similar commissions have succeeded in the past, but recent ones have mostly failed due to partisan divisions. Republicans blame federal spending for the annual deficits while many Democrats cite tax cuts enacted under Republican administrations. That divide was again on display during debate Thursday, raising doubts about whether a new commission could make any headway.

Rep. Jodey Arrington, the committee chairman, said both parties are guilty of not being responsible fiscal stewards. He said the yearly struggles to pass spending bills show a broken process that makes it hard to address the country’s financial challenges.

“We all own this,” said Arrington, R-Texas. “We’re all in this boat together. The boat is sinking.”

The committee’s top Democrat, Pennsylvania Rep. Brendan Boyle, said he fears that some lawmakers want to use the commission “as a backdoor way to force through unpopular cuts.” He said Congress needs to have the courage to increase the revenues going into Social Security and Medicare, which would put both programs on firm financial footing for decades ahead.

“We don’t need a commission to do that,” he said.

The hearing began with a protester being led away by U.S. Capitol Police while yelling “no cuts to Social Security, no cuts to Social Security.” Some 116 House Democrats wrote a letter last week to Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., and Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries of New York, opposing the bill and calling it “a direct circumvention of the process to expedite cuts to Social Security.”

Johnson praised the committee’s vote, calling it “a positive step towards fiscal sanity.” Jeffries said before the vote he would evaluate the proposal after it got out of committee and that he supported various Democratic amendments that were to be offered to the bill. In the end, those Democratic amendments were rejected.‌

“If it’s not clear that Social Security and Medicare are protected, then it will be my expectation that there will be a lukewarm response at best when it hits the floor,” Jeffries said.

Some Democrats do support the establishment of the debt commission. Three committee Democrats voted for it, including Rep. Scott Peters, D-Calif., who worked with Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Mich. in sponsoring the bill. Peters said cuts to Social Security are already factored into current law and once the program exhaust its reserves in less than a decade, then participants would see their benefits cut by about 24%.

“Whether you’re 72 or 92, rich or poor, you’re going to get cut,” Peters said. “Now, we can pretend that doing nothing is going to solve the problem. We can pretend that regular order is going to take care of it. I choose to offer a different path.”

He said he wants to save the program and not cut benefits, but the longer Congress waits to tackle the problem, “the more leverage we give to the people who want to cut benefits.”

Rep. Becca Balint, D-VT, said she is concerned when she hears Arrington say “everything is on the table” for the commission.

“There are some things that should absolutely not be on the table, and that’s because the wealth gap in this country is obscene,” she said.

The commission would be required to hold at least six hearings across the country. A final report and recommendations would be due by May 2025, Arrington said. The recommendations would get an expedited vote in Congress if they win the approval of a majority of the commission, including at least two members of each party.