Debt-Panel Outcome Clouded by Pressure From Lawmakers’ Backers
The 12-member congressional panel charged with finding $1.5 trillion in budget savings may be unable to overcome resistance from the lobbyists, donors and interest groups that sustain them in office.
The committee, already split by internal divisions over taxes and entitlements, will examine defense and health care for possible cuts, and both industries have influence with its members. Health professionals are the biggest donors to three of the House members. Three senators have dozens of military installations to protect, and employees of defense contractor Boeing Co. (BA) are top donors to the panel’s co-chairwoman, Patty Murray.
Retirees are among the largest givers to almost all the lawmakers, and members considering scaling back Social Security or the Medicare insurance program for the elderly will confront a barrage of lobbying by the seniors’ group AARP.
“Nobody wants to promise their cohorts any kind of pain and suffering or divergence from the current theology,” said Bill Frenzel, a former congressman who served as the ranking Republican on the House Budget Committee. Republican distaste for tax increases and Democrats’ insistence on protecting entitlement programs is a “doomsday formula,” he said.
The panel, whose work has taken on greater urgency since Standard & Poor’s downgraded the U.S. credit rating, is already facing doubts about whether it can meet a Nov. 23 deadline for a plan and head off a round of automatic, across-the-board spending cuts. It includes six Democrats who back tax increases and six Republicans who signed a pledge to oppose that. Few have engaged in bipartisan efforts on major issues; 11 of the 12 have voted with their party at least 90 percent of the time.
Pelosi Names Allies
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi yesterday completed the panel’s membership by appointing three of her closest allies: fellow House leaders Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, James Clyburn of South Carolina and Xavier Becerra of California. A day earlier, House Speaker John Boehner tapped Republican Conference Chairman Jeb Hensarling of Texas, and Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp and Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, both of Michigan.
The Democratic senators serving on the panel are Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus of Montana, John Kerry of Massachusetts and Murray of Washington, who runs her party’s fundraising efforts for senators. Their Republican counterparts are Senators Jon Kyl of Arizona, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Rob Portman of Ohio, who served as President George W. Bush’s budget director. Hensarling will join Murray as co-leader of the panel.
‘Situation is Worsening’
When S&P on Aug. 5 lowered the U.S.’s AAA credit rating for the first time, it said lawmakers weren’t doing enough to reduce record deficits by raising taxes or cutting spending, and it dismissed the Aug. 2 deal that averted default and created the super committee as inadequate. A failure by the panel would renew the risk for the nation’s borrowing power.
“If the S&P downgrade had any meaning, it is that our situation is worsening, our debt ratio increases and, even if the super committee on deficit reduction met this target, the debt ratio will still be increasing after 10 years,” said Frenzel, a scholar at the Brookings Institution. “If I were a rater, I would think that augured for bad days ahead.”
Markets are reacting to concern about debt worldwide. While stocks rebounded yesterday, the S&P 500 has dropped 9.3 percent in August after lawmakers announced the deal to raise the debt ceiling and avert default. At the same time, the benchmark 10- year Treasury note’s yield has fallen from a 2011 high of 3.766 percent on Feb. 9 to as low as 2.0346 percent on Aug. 9, Bloomberg Bond Trader prices show.
That concern will make the new committee the central focus of political and lobbying activity in Washington for the next four months.
Four of the panelists -- Becerra, Baucus, Camp and Hensarling -- voted against a deficit-reduction plan last year while serving on a bipartisan commission set up by President Barack Obama. The commission, led by former Republican Senator Alan Simpson of Wyoming and Erskine Bowles, once President Bill Clinton’s chief of staff, proposed a mix of tax increases and spending cuts.
“If you are going to say taxes and entitlements are off the table, I don’t know what they can do that hasn’t already been done,” said Robert Bixby, president of the nonpartisan Concord Coalition, an Arlington, Virginia-based group that advocates for a balanced budget.
‘Gang’ is Absent
The leaders of both parties also decided against naming members of the bipartisan “Gang of Six” senators, who proposed their own debt-reduction plan. Simpson, in an Aug. 8 Bloomberg Television interview, said such a move would spell disaster.
“If you don’t see the Gang of Six -- the three Democrats and three Republicans -- represented very well on that super committee, you will know that it has been destined for failure,” Simpson said.
Unless the panel pushes through a deficit-reduction package by year’s end, $1.2 trillion in across-the-board spending cuts will be triggered over a decade, starting in 2013, equally targeting defense and non-defense programs.
The 12 panel members need a simple majority to make a recommendation. While that may make it easier to agree on a compromise to send to Congress for a year-end vote, the pressures on the panel may make a deal unlikely.
Financial firms are concerned that the committee might opt for changes such as an increase in the tax rate on carried interest -- the profit share paid private equity managers and venture capitalists -- while defense companies need to preserve contracts. Industries from telecommunications to transportation might be affected by tax and spending changes.
The members have some natural constituencies. Automakers such as Ford Motor Co. (F) have extensive operations in Michigan, home to Upton and Camp, and in Portman’s state of Ohio.
Toomey, Portman and Murray have the most military installations in their states, potentially positioning them to fight defense cuts. Defense contractor Lockheed Martin Corp. (LMT) is headquartered in Van Hollen’s district; Northrop Grumman Corp. (NOC), the third-largest U.S. defense contractor, had the most federal contract spending in Hensarling’s district in fiscal year 2010, Bloomberg Government data shows.
Dallas-based phone company AT&T Inc. (T) ranks in the top-five donor lists for three members: Clyburn, Upton and Hensarling. Employees at New York-based Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (GS) are leading contributors to two of the members, Baucus and Kerry, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
The Club for Growth, an anti-tax group that Toomey used to lead, ranked as the top single donor for both Toomey and Kyl.
Health professionals are the biggest block of donors to Upton, Camp and Becerra, while Hensarling has received the most from the finance industry. Aside from retired people, the biggest donor for both Portman and Toomey is the securities and investment industry. For Kyl, it’s the real-estate industry.
Van Hollen, Clyburn and all three Senate Democrats got the biggest chunk of money from lawyers and law firms, which often includes lobbyists.
Labor unions rank in the top five donor lists for both Clyburn and Becerra, close allies who voted 100 percent of the time with the AFL-CIO’s stated positions in 2010. Unions would resist any proposal by the deficit-reduction panel to curb Social Security and Medicare spending.
Toomey’s state has the largest proportion of Social Security recipients among the panel’s senators, while Camp has the highest proportion in a single district, according to Bloomberg Government data.
House and Senate leaders named lawmakers who probably won’t face a stiff re-election fight soon. The six House members were all re-elected with at least 62 percent of the vote, and none of the six senators are facing voters in 2012.
That’s critical because lobbyists and interest groups will be all over the group, Simpson said.
“Once you get specific, you’re gonna get eaten, you’re gonna get clobbered,” he said.
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