(The Center Square) – As the U.S. gross national debt topped $34 trillion, groups across the political spectrum continue to call for a fiscal commission to address the mounting federal debt.
The thinking behind the idea is that a bipartisan commission could help facilitate agreement on difficult fiscal issues. However, few see such a commission as a panacea for a problem with deep roots and politically controversial solutions.
The last major fiscal commission, the U.S. National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, commonly referred to as Simpson-Bowles for co-chairs Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, first met in 2010. It recommended a combination of tax increases and spending cuts, but the full framework was never implemented. A move to bring the proposals to Congress for a vote fell short.
One problem with Simpson-Bowles was that it didn’t require a vote, said former U.S. Comptroller General David Walker, who has been called the Paul Revere of fiscal responsibility. Walker is an advisory board member for Main Street Economics, a group that wants to educate Americans about the nation’s debt crisis.
Walker said the Simpson-Bowles commission did important work, but had flaws.
“There were sent several fundamental flaws in the makeup of Simpson-Bowles,” he told The Center Square. “No. 1, it wasn’t statutory, which means that the Congress and the President didn’t buy in and they had no legal obligation to consider their recommendations and subject them to a vote.”
The threshold for a vote on the commission’s recommendations was too high at 75%, Walker said. And the commission didn’t do any public outreach to educate voters.
“And the third thing, and I would argue the most important, is Simpson-Bowles did not do any meaningful citizen education and engagement in order to till the ground, prepare the way, solicit input before they made the recommendations, and based on my experience, that’s the key to success,” he said. “Because the people are way ahead of the politicians. They understand we can’t continue to operate like we’re operating. They can handle the truth. They’re willing to accept tough choices, as long as they’re part of a comprehensive goal-based plan.”
Public engagement will be critical to any future fiscal commission, Walker said.
In November 2023, a House Budget Committee hearing produced bipartisan support for a fiscal commission, but the details will matter.
Interest costs on the country’s debt increased 23% to $879 billion in fiscal 2023. That’s a record high. Interest costs accounted for 14% of total federal spending as of September 2023. The cost of maintaining that debt is expected to grow. The Congressional Budget Office released projections in June that showed interest costs would “exceed all mandatory spending other than that for the major health care programs and Social Security by 2027, all discretionary outlays by 2047, and all spending on Social Security by 2051.”