The challenge facing the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction was on stark display today as protesters chanted refrains outside a House committee room while lawmakers exchanged niceties inside at their first meeting.
Trying to strike a balance between insider policymaking and public politics, the super committee is tasked with finding $1.2 trillion to $1.5 trillion in savings over the next decade before Thanksgiving. And though it won’t be easy overcoming the same partisan divides that have plagued the parties this year, many lawmakers said in their opening statements that the group should aim high and that failure is not an option.
“Let’s at least hit our goal of $1.5 trillion, and let’s keep in mind that long-term stainability also means more than merely reaching a 10-year savings target. The quality of reforms matter more than the quantity,” Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) said. “Tweaks and one-time savings could add up to $1.5 trillion over 10 years, yet they would leave in place soaring future deficits caused by unreformed entitlements.”
But the optimism of the opening session did little to make the path to a deal clearer. The panel unanimously approved its rules, set mostly by the August debt ceiling deal, and will have a public hearing Tuesday to continue the debate on how best to rein in a burgeoning federal deficit. Members will hear from Congressional Budget Office Director Douglas Elmendorf on “The History and Drivers of Our Nation’s Debt and Its Threats” at that hearing.
At today’s session, Republicans, such as Co-Chairman Jeb Hensarling (Texas), dug in on “reforming social safety net programs,” such as Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security, which take up a significant portion of government spending. Democrats, as they have throughout the year, insisted that a more balanced approach to cutting the deficit is required, including dealing with taxes.
Mere hours before President Barack Obama is slated to appear before a joint session of Congress, the 12 lawmakers got a taste of the pressures to come as they attempt to complete their task. The outside influences, from what the White House wants to what plays well in the public sphere, likely will affect the groups every move.
Just ask House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.), who had to stop in the middle of his opening statement because protesters had become so loud in the Rayburn House Office Building hallways that he could not be heard over their chants.
About 15 protesters screamed, “What do we want? Jobs. When do we need them? Now,” as staffers scrambled to shut the committee room doors. However, television cables were in the way, preventing the doors from being closed.
A spokeswoman for the progressive, anti-war group CodePink confirmed that the organization helped stage the protest, alongside another group, OurDC, whose mission statement according to its website is “bringing good jobs to the District.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.