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In the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction's first open hearing in more than a month, Democrats and Republicans revealed their divisions over how and where to make discretionary spending cuts in a deficit reduction package the group must produce before Thanksgiving.
"Nondefense discretionary spending represents less than one-fifth of total federal spending. Listening to the debates here in D.C. over the last few months, you would think this small piece of pie was a whole lot bigger," Co-Chairman Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said in her opening statements, careful to differentiate between defense and domestic discretionary spending.
"All the focus on this one area is especially striking given that we are spending about the same on nondefense discretionary programs in 2011 as we did in 2001. Meanwhile, mandatory programs increased, defense spending increased, and revenues plummeted," she said.
Republicans, meanwhile, were not as deliberate throughout the hearing to draw a distinction between the two kinds of discretionary spending. Instead, they attacked the 2009 stimulus bill as an unnecessary increase in spending that they believe added to the ballooning deficit.
Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle posed tough questions to Congressional Budget Office Director Doug Elmendorf, whose appearance before the committee Tuesday was his second since the panel began meeting.
Elmendorf gave a detailed outline of where budget outlays have been and where the nonpartisan budget office predicts they will go, all the while underscoring that discretionary spending is not only a smaller piece of the federal budget than mandatory spending — like for Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security — but also is growing at a much slower rate.
Indeed, this seems to be the one point where Democrats and Republicans agree. Super committee members from the left and right emphasized that cutting discretionary spending is not enough to seriously rein in the federal deficit. Any package that would put a serious dent in deficits must include reforms in revenues and mandatory spending programs, the CBO chief said.
The GOP co-chairman of the panel, Rep. Jeb Hensarling (Texas), highlighted this point in his opening statements, which were later cited by Elmendorf in an answer to a question from Murray.
"Prudent stewardship of our discretionary budget is going to be helpful. It alone cannot solve the crisis," Hensarling said. "The challenge before us remains that we must find quality health care solutions, quality retirement security solutions for our nation at a cost that does not compromise our national security, does not compromise job growth in our economy and does not mortgage our children's future. Everything else we do, including dealing with the discretionary budget, will be helpful. Nothing else will solve the structural debt crisis or allow this committee to meet its statutory duty."