New Cast, Same Problems? The Super Committee’s First Meeting

It may be a new group but it’s still got the same problems.

The inaugural meeting of the debt Super Committee, tasked with identifying $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction by Nov. 23, today showed that while the 12 member bicameral, bipartisan team all agree that the deficit is an unsustainable problem, the way forward is less clear and the same issues that have dogged past deficit reduction groups remain.

“The truth is this extraordinary committee exists because nothing else has worked,” Sen. Rob Portman, R-OH., said bluntly today.

The committee has until Thanksgiving to come to an agreement on a plan to achieve a $1.5 trillion cut to the deficit over the next decade. If they do not, the trigger options, negotiated during the debt ceiling deal, would take effect.

Co-chair Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-TX., said that his approach to leading the committee, along with co-chair Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., is with a sense “of urgency, high hopes and realistic expectations.”

Today’s meeting was organizational in nature but opening statements by each of the 12 members showed that although publically they have a wiliness to work together, the same ideological differences still remain. Republicans urged for there to be changes to entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare. Democrats continued using the phrase “balanced,” which calls for increases in tax revenues.

Committee members stressed that their deadline is actually much sooner than Thanksgiving – as their recommendations need time, usually two weeks, to be scored by the CBO, leaving a much smaller window of working time. Their goal is to have recommendations agreed on by the end of October.

“We have just 77 days left to complete our work,” Rep. Van Hollen, D-MD., said. “The clock is ticking. There are plenty of ideas out there for reducing the deficit that have been thoroughly debated, and we have a menu of options. So I think all of us would agree that if the committee were to fail, and I’m confident it won’t, but it would be not for lack of ideas, but for a lack of political will.”

Regardless of the trigger threat looming, the time constraints and the ideological differences the members of the Super Committee today showed optimism that they can get it done. Many even called for the committee to try to go farther in deficit reduction than what was asked of them.

“We should aim higher. We should aim to do what’s necessary to bring long-term sustainability to the federal budget,” Portman said. “But let’s at least hit our $1.5 trillion target, and let’s keep in mind that long-term sustainability also means that merely reaching the 10-year target isn’t enough.”

Sen. Max Baucus, D-MT., agreed.

“We should aim higher, rather than lower. We’re charged with reducing the deficit by about, oh, 1.3 1.5 trillion. I think we should try to do more, because if we can do a little more, then we will be able to get our fiscal house in order much more quickly than you otherwise might.”

There’s also been much pressure on the group to hold all of their hearings and meetings in public. Today the co-chairs announced that as they proceed, their hearings will be public. But the co-chairs added that like other committees of Congress, there will also be “some discussions among members” that will not be open to the public.

“As this committee works to bring its final product forward, let me make it clear that that product and that product process will be public so my colleagues and the American people will know what the committee has put together,” Senator Murray said.

The committee will meet again on Tuesday, Sept. 13, when they will hear testimony from CBO Director Doug Elmendorf on the history and drivers of the nation’s debt.