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Original art by ©priceman

This Catfood Commission just won't die.


It originated with Kent Conrad and Judd Gregg in 2008.  Their purpose was to cut entitlement programs.  In May of 2008 they held this event at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars:
The Seniors’ Entitlement Crunch: The Politics of Social Security and Medicare Reform"

When the next President and new Congress take office next January, they will face a critical issue that has not been addressed in either the current presidential campaign or the congressional budget resolutions, and that is how to deal with the impending insolvencies of the Medicare and Social Security Trust Funds in the next decade. The top two senators on the Senate Budget Committee have cosponsored legislation to deal with the problem early in the next Congress by acting on the recommendations of a bipartisan commission of House Members, senators, and administration officials that would be created and mandated to report findings next January. Similar bipartisan process approaches have been introduced in both houses of Congress and proposed by prominent economists of various political stripes. Will the political will exist to address this long festering fiscal fissure? This forum will explore these vital economic security and political issues.


In January of 2009, Conrad and Gregg wrote an Op-Ed that was published in the Washington Post trying to get their commission embedded in the recovery package:

Our Two-Front Fiscal Challenge

As a Democrat and a Republican, we don't always see eye to eye on fiscal matters. But we agree on this: When Congress takes up an economic recovery package this month, it should be linked to a bipartisan commitment to begin addressing the long-term budget challenges confronting our nation.

[ ... ]

By acting now, we can make difficult but gradual changes to bend the cost curves of entitlement programs that will otherwise overwhelm our budget, as well as make needed reforms to our out-of-date and inefficient tax code. The longer we put off these reforms, the more draconian our choices will become and the more likely they are to be forced upon us.

The commitment we call for could take the form of the bipartisan fiscal task force that we have proposed. The task force would establish a process to confront the long-term fiscal imbalance. [ ... ] The panel's proposal would be given fast-track consideration in Congress.

[ Emphasis added. ]

This was written by William Greider in The Nation back in February of 2009:

Looting Social Security
Governing elites in Washington and Wall Street have devised a fiendishly clever "grand bargain" they want President Obama to embrace in the name of "fiscal responsibility." The government, they argue, having spent billions on bailing out the banks, can recover its costs by looting the Social Security system. They are also targeting Medicare and Medicaid. The pitch sounds preposterous to millions of ordinary working people anxious about their economic security and worried about their retirement years. But an impressive armada is lined up to push the idea--Washington's leading think tanks, the prestige media, tax-exempt foundations, skillful propagandists posing as economic experts and a self-righteous billionaire spending his fortune to save the nation from the elderly.

These players are promoting a tricky way to whack Social Security benefits, but to do it behind closed doors so the public cannot see what's happening or figure out which politicians to blame. The essential transaction would amount to misappropriating the trillions in Social Security taxes that workers have paid to finance their retirement benefits. This swindle is portrayed as "fiscal reform." In fact, it's the political equivalent of bait-and-switch fraud.

Defending Social Security sounds like yesterday's issue--the fight people won when they defeated George W. Bush's attempt to privatize the system in 2005. But the financial establishment has pushed it back on the table, claiming that the current crisis requires "responsible" leaders to take action. Will Obama take the bait? Surely not. The new president has been clear and consistent about Social Security, as a candidate and since his election. The program's financing is basically sound, he has explained, and can be assured far into the future by making only modest adjustments.

But Obama is also playing footsie with the conservative advocates of "entitlement reform" (their euphemism for cutting benefits). The president wants the corporate establishment's support on many other important matters, and he recently promised to hold a "fiscal responsibility summit" to examine the long-term costs of entitlements. That forum could set the trap for a "bipartisan compromise" that may become difficult for Obama to resist, given the burgeoning deficit. If he resists, he will be denounced as an old-fashioned free-spending liberal. The advocates are urging both parties to hold hands and take the leap together, authorizing big benefits cuts in a circuitous way that allows them to dodge the public's blame. In my new book, Come Home, America, I make the point: "When official America talks of 'bipartisan compromise,' it usually means the people are about to get screwed."

When the commission was not put into the recovery package in 2009, Conrad and Gregg started threatening to vote against raising the debt ceiling unless they got their commission.

Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (N.D.) and other moderate Democrats have threatened to vote against a higher debt limit unless Congress creates a bipartisan task force, composed primarily of lawmakers, to address the budget problem. Conrad and Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) introduced legislation Wednesday that would invest such a body with broad power to force tax increases or spending cuts through Congress.


In January of 2010, Conrad and Gregg attached an amendment to the debt ceiling/Pay-Go bill in order to try to create their commission yet again.  The amendment failed and the commission was not created.

Conrad/Gregg Deficit Reduction Commission Amendment Falls

An amendment offered by Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-ND) and Ranking Member Judd Gregg (R-NH) to legislation increasing the debt ceiling (H. J. Res. 45) has been defeated by a vote of 53 to 46.  Per a unanimous consent agreement, 60 votes were needed for passage.

[ ... ]

Prior to this vote, members adopted an amendment offered by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) aimed at preventing cuts in Social Security if the proposed commission were created.  It passed by a vote of 97 to 0.

After the Senate blocked the creation of the commission on 1/26/10, the very next day the President pledged during his SOTU speech to create the commission by executive order.

Remarks by the President in State of the Union Address 1/27/10

Now, even after paying for what we spent on my watch, we'll still face the massive deficit we had when I took office.  More importantly, the cost of Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security will continue to skyrocket.  That's why I've called for a bipartisan fiscal commission, modeled on a proposal by Republican Judd Gregg and Democrat Kent Conrad.  (Applause.)  This can't be one of those Washington gimmicks that lets us pretend we solved a problem.  The commission will have to provide a specific set of solutions by a certain deadline.

Now, yesterday, the Senate blocked a bill that would have created this commission.  So I'll issue an executive order that will allow us to go forward, because I refuse to pass this problem on to another generation of Americans.  (Applause.)  And when the vote comes tomorrow, the Senate should restore the pay-as-you-go law that was a big reason for why we had record surpluses in the 1990s.  (Applause.)

Now, I know that some in my own party will argue that we can't address the deficit or freeze government spending when so many are still hurting.  And I agree -- which is why this freeze won't take effect until next year -- (laughter) -- when the economy is stronger.  That's how budgeting works.  (Laughter and applause.)  But understand –- understand if we don't take meaningful steps to rein in our debt, it could damage our markets, increase the cost of borrowing, and jeopardize our recovery -– all of which would have an even worse effect on our job growth and family incomes.

And so the Catfood Commission was created by Executive Order 13531 and held its first meeting on April 27, 2010.  The co-chairmen were the infamous Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles.  After six months, they failed to produce a commission report on December 1, 2010 as ordered by 13531 and never held a vote.  The commission was a complete failure. The co-chairmen produced a last minute report by themselves.  Some tried to (and still try to) pass this non-report off as the commission report but since it was created only by two men and not by the commission and because it was never brought to a vote,did not garner the 14 necessary votes and it did not comply with the rules and mission laid out by the Executive Order and was therefore not official.  It was nothing more than a white paper of sorts and the opinions of two men.  


And now the zombie commission rises again.  This time, it looks like it may finally be created by Congress (a more powerful, more dangerous form of commission) and will be the vehicle to fast track cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.  If so, the it looks like the plans are for it to be in place and the express legislation in Congress by the end of the year.  It seems reasonable to assume that the lawmakers appointed to the commission this time will be carefully chosen so that they will not fail this time.

Congress tees up crucial votes on debt limit

The growing sentiment for raising the federal limit on U.S. borrowing sets the stage for a week of largely scripted actions on Capitol Hill, where leaders in both chambers are looking to build support for the plan being crafted by Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

McConnell Plan For Debt Ceiling May Be Final Answer, Insiders Say
John Podesta, who runs the Center for American Progress, a think tank with extremely close ties to the Obama administraion, said on "Fox News Sunday" that McConnell's plan is the likely endgame for current debt talks.

[ ... ]

"Well, it's McConnell-Reid, yes," Kyl said. "That's what the Senate is proceeding with. Now, the House of Representatives has to make its decision about what it will do. But ... at the end of the day, I don't think there'll be a default."

Specifics of the McConnell plan are still being discussed, but the general approach would require over $1.5 trillion in spending cuts over ten years, while granting President Obama the authority to extend the debt ceiling through the 2012 election season. Obama would also have to propose -- but ultimately be allowed to veto -- any additional cuts beyond the initial $1.5 trillion. The deal would further create a new deficit commission comprised solely of lawmakers who would be tasked with finding additional savings in the budget. The commission's recommendations would be given automatic, amendment-free votes in both chambers of Congress.

Update on the Debt Limit: McConnell-Reid to Be Unveiled Later This Week
Meanwhile, McConnell-Reid, the fallback option to match an elaborate scheme to raise the debt limit without Republican votes to a cuts-only package amounting to around $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction, has moved into the forefront as the only way to end the stalemate. The deal would not include tax increases or cuts to Medicare and Social Security (it’s unclear to this point where it leaves Medicaid), but it would include a Catfood Commission II, a Congresscritters-only panel which would make recommendations on entitlements (and possibly tax reform) that would be guaranteed an up or down vote in each chamber of Congress.

Was this the endgame all along? Did the president know that he would not be able to get his "grand bargain" cuts through Congress all along but did believe that he could finally get the Kent-Conrad Catfood Commission with teeth (fast tracked through Congress, no amendments, no filibusters) under the threat of the Shock Doctrine debt ceiling global economic meltdown?  

It certainly seems that someone will not let this Zombie Catfood Commission die until it is able to feed on our Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid programs.

Originally posted to The Amateur Left on Mon Jul 18, 2011 at 07:30 AM PDT.

Also republished by Progressive Policy Zone, The Democratic Wing of the Democratic Party, Social Security Defenders, and Team DFH.

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