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.”
“Some of us were dressed up as billionaires,” CodePink spokeswoman Medea Benjamin said of the 15 or so protesters, a few of whom were wearing pink formal dresses and top hats.
James Adams, a spokesman for OurDC, said that his group's protest was separate from CodePink's and that the two groups are not affiliated.
After the protest was disbanded, the proceedings continued with little drama and much optimism from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. The committee members sat alternately by party within their own chamber.
Democratic Reps. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), Xavier Becerra (Calif.), James Clyburn (S.C.); Democratic Sens. Patty Murray (Wash.), Max Baucus (Mont.) and John Kerry (Mass.) as well as Republican Reps. Hensarling, Camp, Fred Upton (Mich) and Republican Sens. Portman, Jon Kyl (Ariz.) and Pat Toomey (Pa.) all delivered opening remarks. Murray serves as committee co-chairwoman.
Each Member seemed very careful to outline their policy beliefs while still appearing open to compromise, knowing that if they fail, they will trigger across-the-board spending cuts to both defense and other discretionary programs.
“While none of us will ever set aside or betray our principles, we must keep in mind there is much more that binds us as Americans than divides us, and we must all be open to compromise and to the ideas and viewpoints of others,” Murray said. “That’s why I have been so glad that as we have gotten this process off the ground over the last few weeks, committee members have refrained from drawing lines in the sand or carving out areas that can’t be touched.”