All Hands on Debt: Entering the Critical Debate Over Federal Deficit Reduction

Last week the Co-Chairmen of the President's National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform -- former Wyoming Senator Alan Simpson and former White House Chief-of-Staff Erskine Bowles -- released their draft deficit reduction proposal. The Simpson-Bowles plan seeks to reduce the deficit by $372 billion in Fiscal Year 2015, more than President Obama’s target of $250 billion. Today, Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), a member of the Commission, issued her own proposal to reduce the federal deficit, saving $428 billion in FY 2015.

Both proposals are intent on solving the same problem – reigning in the spiraling federal debt – and they share some similarities. But they are also dramatically different in many critical areas.

Releasing her plan, Rep. Schakowsky stated that the Simpson-Bowles proposal "would have serious consequences for lower and middle class Americans, and that is why I cannot support it."

Unlike the Simpson-Bowles proposal, which cuts $100 billion from non-defense discretionary programs (those programs requested by the President and approved by Congress on annual basis), Rep. Schakowsky reaps only very modest savings from this funding -- $8.6 billion "through increased efficiency and cuts to programs that benefit large corporations that don’t need assistance."

Both proposals seek to ensure the long-term solvency of the Social Security system. Rep. Schakowsky states that her plan “does not contain any cuts to Social Security” but raises the amount of income subject to the Social Security payroll tax. Meanwhile, a new analysis by Center for Budget and Policy Priorities states that the Simpson-Bowles alternative “would assure Social Security’s long-run solvency but at the cost of making significant benefit cuts for most retirees, including many with modest incomes."

Rep. Schakowsky also includes $200 billion in new spending over the next two years in an effort to create jobs and spur economic growth, arguing that “Economic growth is not just good for businesses and families – it will reduce the deficit.” The Simpson-Bowles proposal looks only at spending cuts and new revenue sources, without a direct investment component.

One area of agreement between the two proposals are provisions that make substantial cuts in the defense budget. Rep. Schakowsky’s plan cuts $110.7 billion, while Simpson-Bowles proposes roughly $100 billion in savings. Yet while there are a number of similarities – terminating the V-22 “Osprey” aircraft and the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, and reducing the number of U.S. forces permanently stationed in Europe and Asia, for example – even here there are also significant differences.

The Simpson-Bowles proposal places a three-year freeze on salaries, bonuses, and other compensation for Pentagon civilian employees, and a similar freeze on non-combat military pay. Rep. Schakowsky’s plan instead calls for reducing the size of the Army and Marine Corps to their pre-war levels, along with a corresponding reduction in the military’s civilian workforce.

The two proposals willingness to consider cutting military spending – long considered sacrosanct in Washington, D.C. – is in itself indicative of the serious nature of the discussion around deficit reduction. It also puts both proposals at odds with a third major plan released recently by the Heritage Foundation.

In “How to Cut $343 Billion from the Federal Budget,” Heritage argues against any cuts to the military, and is actually pushing for higher Pentagon budgets. They achieve their savings through significant reductions in non-defense discretionary programs and cuts in entitlement programs including Social Security and Medicare.

Yet another proposal will soon be available. The Bipartisan Policy Center's Debt Reduction Task Force, chaired by former Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete Domenici and former White House Budget Director and Federal Reserve Vice Chair Alice Rivlin, will release “Restoring America’s Future” tomorrow. And while details are as yet unavailable, it will likely encompass a number of initiatives proposed by either Simpson-Bowles or Rep. Schakowsky.

These are just some of the various proposals that are out there. And as this brief overview hopefully shows, the range of alternatives being discussed is broad, and the areas of disagreement are often very large. More proposals and analysis will emerge after the President’s deficit commission issues its final report on December 1.

The stakes of this debate are high. It is unclear to many people why we are even discussing deficit reduction during these tough economic times. They believe that more federal spending, not less, is what is needed to stimulate economic recovery, and that dealing with the deficit can wait for better times.

Either way, the decisions that will be made in Washington over the coming months could have a major and lasting impact on this country. Join NPP as we work to shed light on this complex yet critical debate.