Budget Conference Committee Promises Compromise, Bipartisanship

The budget conference committee convened its first meeting on Wednesday. The members struck a promising tone with their statements, but the real work is just beginning.

The opening session consisted solely of opening statements from the 29 committee members. There was a lot commonality in those statements. Here’s a look at common themes expressed by the conferees.

Both Parties Need to Work Together and Find Real Solutions Through Compromise

Most conference committee members expressed the desire for the committee to get something done and acknowledged that it would require bipartisan cooperation to do so. House Budget Committee chair Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Senate Budget Committee chair Patty Murray (D-WA) set the tone in their opening remarks. Rep. Ryan started by stating:

We’re here because we want to get an agreement. We want to get something done. For too long, both parties have ignored our growing national debt—and the threat it poses to our country. Democrats didn’t create all these problems—and neither did Republicans. Everybody was part of the problem, so everybody has to be part of the solution.

Sen. Murray expressed a similar sentiment:

I am hopeful we can at least show that bipartisanship is possible, that we can work together to solve some problems, and that we can break free from the gridlock and dysfunction that has dominated our nation’s capital for far too long.

In a divided government, both sides have to make tough and sometimes uncomfortable choices.
James Clyburn (D-SC)
Rep. Tom Price (R-GA) added, “I look forward to having all of us put our talking points aside, ignore the routine Washington think of we win/you lose, and coming together to meet this current challenge.” Similarly, Rep. James Clyburn (D-SC) noted, “In a divided government, both sides have to make tough and sometimes uncomfortable choices.”

Relatedly, many members admitted the need to make tough decisions and compromise in order to achieve substantive solutions.  As Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) put it, “We cannot start these talks by taking things off the table, and we can’t be serious about reducing the deficit and then refuse to close a single tax break to help reduce that deficit.” Later in her remarks Sen. Murray added, “I’m ready to make some tough concessions to get a deal.”

Rep. Clyburn continued, “We know that a reasonable, balanced approach involving shared sacrifice is not only the fairest way to cut the deficit, it is the most effective.” And Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) said, “Democrats are going to have to deal with entitlement reforms, and Republicans are going to have to deal with revenues, and we ought to be willing to at least approach those areas.”

Need to Continue Deficit Reduction and Address the True Drivers of the Long-Term Debt

Another common theme among the conferees was the need to continue addressing our long-term fiscal challenges. Rep. Van Hollen remarked that “we should continue our work to reduce our long-term deficits and shrink the debt.” Rep. Clyburn echoed the sentiment, “we must put our nation’s fiscal house in order and reduce our long term debt to a manageable level.” Sen. Mike Crapo (R-ID) made the point that “The reality is that we do still have a debt crisis.”

Several legislators discussed the need to support the fragile economic recovery and how smart budget choices can help the effort. As Sen. Warner mentioned, “I think there would be nothing that would do more for job creation and economic growth than removing this fiscal overhang of governing by crisis. I hope that we can exceed expectations and do that.” In a similar vein, Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) stated, “I don’t think we’re going to see a robust economic recovery that we all hope for unless we take this wet blanket off the economy. That’s this amazing level of debt and deficit.”

Finally, Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) acknowledged that economic growth alone, while vital, would not overcome our fiscal challenges:

I will agree … that we can’t simply grow our way out of our problems – we do have to address the drivers of our debt and deficits. We have to continue to reduce our deficits, which we have cut in half over the last four years. If we don’t, interest expense is a very real threat for crowding out both public and private investment in education, in R&D, and in infrastructure.

Tax Reform

One specific area where lawmakers found broad agreement for the need for reform was the tax code. While it is quite unlikely the committee can achieve fundamental tax reform in the short period of time it has, it can set up a process that can build off of the work that the House Ways and Means and Senate Finance committees are pursuing. As Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK) said:

I believe this committee should set forth a path to allow for expedited consideration of a tax reform package. It has been over 25 years since we have taken a comprehensive look at our tax code. In that time, the fundamental nature of our economy has changed. It is important that our tax code now reflect the priorities of the 21st century.

In particular, the tax deductions, credits, exemptions and other breaks known as “tax expenditures” were singled out by many. Sen. Time Kaine (D-VA) argued that “We ought to be willing to look at all the tax expenditures.” And Rep. Cole observed, “the over 200 tax expenditures amount to more than $12 trillion over the 10-year budget window. I find it quite hard to believe that every one of these expenditures is necessary or could not be limited in some manner.”

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), put it succinctly:

“Who among us does not believe that we cannot do serious tax reform?”

Replace Sequestration and Stop Governing from Crisis to Crisis

Many lawmakers expressed frustration with the constant kicking the can down the road when it comes to dealing with the deficit, which has led to governing from crisis to crisis and unpopular policies like the automatic budget cuts of sequestration.

Sen. Crapo called for a stronger budget process:

I think one of the best things this committee could do is to establish some processes to help us move forward to assure and protect the existing achievements that have been made. Budget enforcement processes that will help us assure that Congress sticks to the agreements that it does make on the budget. And then, set forward some processes to help us move into the larger objectives –what has been called ‘grand bargains.’ I know that we don’t have the time in this committee to put together  the kind of large deal that would involve tax reform, entitlement reform, fiscal reform and the budget enforcement reform that all of us know needs to be done. But, we can set up some processes to help us assure that the tax reform, that we all talk about and are working on, does move forward and moves forward promptly.

Rep. Cole urged the committee to “break the pattern of living from crisis to crisis and relying solely on short-term funding agreements.” And Sen. Warner expressed optimism that a way could be found that replaces the sequester with smarter budget savings. “I think there is a way that we cannot only protect savings but find ways to replace sequester.”

Of course, actions speak louder than words. As The Washington Post points out, the question of revenue remains a major sticking point for negotiators. But we expressed optimism based on what many committee members had to say and look forward to helping them back up their words.

the Campaign to Fix the Debt is optimistic that the conferees will be able to forge an agreement that will put the federal budget on a sustainable track for Fiscal Year 2014 and beyond.

Many of the conferees stated their openness to working towards both pro-growth tax reform and money-saving entitlement reform – the two areas of the budget that are driving our debt over future decades. Now it’s time for them to back up their words with action.

The conference committee will next meet formally on November 13. In the meantime, there no doubt will be many ad hoc conversations. As the committee deliberates, our partner, the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, offers guidelines on “What We Hope to See from the Budget Conference Committee,” including:

  • Put the debt on a downward path as a share of the economy
  • Set sustainable and responsible discretionary spending levels
  • Use reconciliation instructions to produce real deficit reduction and reform
  • Focus on the long term
  • Fix Social Security on a separate track
  • Avoid budget gimmicks.

Have more questions about the budget conference committee and what it is supposed to do? Get answers here.

This article was originally published by Fix the Debt on November 4, 2013

Photo credit: Whitehouse.gov