5 Reasons Why a Debt Commission Is the Wrong Prescription
The House Budget Committee has scheduled a hearing tomorrow to consider creating a fiscal commission, noting the nation’s growing level of debt. But a commission is the wrong prescription for the country.
Raising revenues is central to any responsible effort to reduce deficits, but there is no sign that long-standing Republican resistance to raising revenues has reversed or even softened. Moreover, a fiscal commission is likely to focus narrowly on reducing deficits, ignoring other important policy challenges — from addressing climate change to broadening opportunity and reducing hardship. Ignoring these and other important issues could lead a commission to recommend policies that would reduce deficits but harm the country in important ways.
House Republicans’ lack of serious interest in finding bipartisan solutions to the nation’s fiscal challenges is exemplified by the House Budget Committee proposing to create a commission in a budget resolution that lays out extreme fiscal policies and that was adopted with only Republican support. The budget resolution calls for large-scale deficit reduction to be achieved by taking health care, food assistance, and other assistance from people with low incomes; slashing funding that supports a wide range of basic government functions; and making massive cuts through unspecified “government-wide savings.” The fiscal blueprint fails to identify a single revenue increase and includes a provision intended to allow for an unlimited amount of new, unpaid-for tax cuts.
Indeed, every Republican budget — congressional or presidential since 2011 — has prioritized deep cuts in government investments and program areas that are critical to people, communities, and the economy, but has refused to consider raising revenues to meet national needs. Republicans have not supported significant tax increases since the 1990 bipartisan budget agreement, while pushing through significant, unpaid-for tax cuts in 2001, 2003, and 2017.
Here are five reasons why a debt-focused commission is the wrong way for the nation to face our serious policy and fiscal challenges.
1)The only way to responsibly reduce deficits without slashing investments in people and the economy or turning our back on commitments made in Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid is to raise revenues as a central component of any plan. But long-standing Republican resistance to raising revenues has prevented a bipartisan agreement to do so.
The Congressional Budget Office’s long-term debt projections have long shown debt rising relative to the size of the economy in coming decades; while it’s not clear what level of debt would pose significant economic concerns, policymakers likely will need to adjust fiscal policy in the future to bring down projected debt levels. Debt is a problem to the degree that the cost of servicing the debt crowds out addressing other priorities, or when it weakens our ability to respond to crises.
Policymakers and others have proposed various fiscal targets for commissions, including limiting the debt to the size of the economy by 2033, as Reps. Scott Peters and Bill Huizenga proposed in their fiscal commission bill. This is a challenging fiscal target to hit but would require far less deficit reduction than trying to balance the budget by 2033, as the House Budget Resolution purports to do.
To stabilize the debt ratio as Peters and Huizenga propose but without raising revenues and without cutting Social Security, Medicare, defense, and veterans’ benefits — program areas some Republicans say they will shield from cuts — would require cutting everything else in the budget by 30 percent. If policymakers extend the 2017 tax cuts that are slated to expire in 2025 without offsetting their cost with other revenue-raisers, then the cuts would have to be deeper still — 43 percent.
That would almost certainly mean taking food assistance and health coverage away from people with low incomes, including children and people with disabilities, and slashing investments in areas such as education, basic research, law enforcement, food and drug safety, transportation and ports, and substance use disorder treatment, to name just a few. The cuts would drive up poverty and the number of people without health coverage, narrow opportunity, and hurt the economy, which depends on investment and a skilled and healthy workforce. Such cuts would also preclude addressing the areas where more investment is needed, such as climate change or child care.
Alternatively, of course, policymakers could decide to substantially cut Social Security and Medicare, defense, or veterans’ benefits to lessen the cuts in other areas while forgoing raising revenues — this too would be irresponsible and highly unpopular among both policymakers and the public.
The need to raise revenues is clear, but Republican budgets have repeatedly demonstrated that there is no support among Republican lawmakers to countenance serious revenue increases. Indeed, congressional Republicans have consistently pushed damaging cuts in IRS funding, including efforts in this Congress to roll back the badly needed investment in IRS modernization, weakening the agency’s ability to even just collect the taxes that are already legally owed.
2)The nation faces a series of significant challenges in addition to its debt level, and a commission focused only on debt could embrace policies that would worsen other challenges.
A commission focused only on the “math problem” — the difference between revenues and spending — could prioritize solutions that would reduce projected deficits and debt but exacerbate our under-investment in people, communities, and the economy, particularly in the absence of a commitment to raise revenues. Cutting health care, education, investments in children, and incentives for energy transition may result in a near-term reduction in the fiscal deficit, but such cuts would exacerbate our investment deficit and have harmful long-term consequences on both individuals and the country as a whole.
Commissions are not well designed to consider the broad array of challenges facing the country, which are at the heart of fiscal policymaking. Without that broader focus, a debt commission risks making recommendations that, while trying to address one problem, could be harmful to the country overall. Indeed, it is somewhat ironic that members of Congress would consider delegating policymaking responsibility to a commission, when congressional committees, with their deep and broad expertise, are better suited to the task.
3)Without a basic agreement that raising revenues must be central to any deficit-reduction plan, the commission would be set up for failure, even if it focused just on the debt.
It has been more than three decades since Republicans voted for any significant revenue increases, in the 1990 Budget Enforcement Act. Those revenue increases were only possible because a Republican President and congressional leaders from both parties committed upfront to raise revenue. Absent such a commitment, any fiscal commission would be set up for failure — if not in the commission itself, then if its recommendations face a vote in Congress.
The last fiscal commission — the 2010 National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform established by President Obama and chaired by Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson — developed a series of recommendations for revenue increases and spending reductions. While a majority of commission members — including all Senate Republicans but no House Republicans — supported the commission’s recommendations, it failed to reach the threshold for support for the plan to be formally sent to Congress. Republicans’ willingness to endorse revenue increases has only fallen in the time since.
The Bowles-Simpson Commission didn’t lead to legislation, but it served as a backdrop to the 2011 budget negotiations between Speaker John Boehner and President Obama. In those negotiations House Republicans rejected revenue increases. The negotiations led to the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA), which included a set of spending cuts and effectively created another commission — dubbed a “supercommittee” — made up of members of Congress and charged with developing legislation that would produce over $1 trillion in deficit reduction. In large part because members didn’t agree on revenues, the supercommittee failed, triggering even larger spending cuts under the BCA.
While the Bowles-Simpson process firmly embraced an approach that included significant new revenues, only spending cuts became law through the BCA. Even after policymakers moderated the cuts on a bipartisan basis, they imposed real damage on one part of the budget: public services largely outside of entitlements.
Some might justify a new commission with promises that it will “put everything on the table.” But such tepid promises are of little consequence if Republicans have not agreed that higher revenues must be a central part of the recommendations that would emerge from a debt commission.
4)Setting a commission up for failure could cause harm.
Some will argue that a fiscal commission is worth trying even if its chances of success are slim to none. But another failed commission can breed further distrust in government. Policymakers will undoubtably justify their support of the commission by touting its expected positive impact. Those with no intention of supporting needed tax increases can look like they are serious about fiscal propriety by pushing for and serving on the commission. And then when the commission fails, the public will view this as another failure of government.
As troubling, while the commission discussion is underway, it is almost certain to confine its focus on basic deficit math, instead of focusing on what the country needs to spend to meet its obligations at home and abroad; broaden prosperity and opportunity; address climate change; and help people who face challenges affording the basics such as food, rent, health care, and child care — and then how to responsibly finance those investments. This misdiagnosing of the problem can affect the public’s view about whether policymakers are focused on the issues that matter to them.
5)Rather than setting up a commission that’s both a distraction and doomed to fail, policymakers should focus on the coming expiration of the individual provisions of the 2017 tax cuts and take steps to ensure that, at a minimum, they are not extended in ways that worsen our fiscal challenges.
The expiration of the 2017 tax cuts in 2025 will set the stage for the next major debate on fiscal policies affecting our long-term outlook. Extending all of them would cost more than $3 trillion in the ten years after their scheduled expiration. Many Republican policymakers have said the tax cuts should all be extended without raising other revenues to cover the costs; indeed, many are interested in adding still more tax cuts on top. These expiring provisions are in addition to the very expensive, permanent corporate tax cuts that were also enacted in 2017.
These expensive and regressive tax cuts have failed to deliver on their proponents' “trickle down” promises. Policymakers concerned about deficits and debt should commit to not extending any tax cuts without paying for them, identifying the tax cuts that are unnecessary or wasteful and shouldn’t continue, and raising additional revenues for critical national needs or deficit reduction. This would put the responsibility where it belongs — on high-income people and profitable corporations who benefit tremendously from government investment and often pay low effective tax rates because of the many ways they can shield income from taxation. Enacting thoughtful tax law is work that would pay off for the country. Rather than be distracted by a commission, policymakers should focus their attention on this imminent fiscal challenge.
Fiscal policy is about far more than the difference between revenues and spending. It is about whom and what we invest in, whom and what we leave behind, and how we raise the resources needed to make the investments that we value. A commission focused narrowly on deficit math — particularly one that does not start with a commitment to raise revenues — cannot grapple with these questions in responsible ways.
 Richard Kogan and Joel Friedman, “Five Things to Look for in the House Republican Budget Resolution,” CBPP, September 18, 2023, https://www.cbpp.org/research/federal-budget/five-things-to-look-for-in-the-house-republican-budget-resolution.
 Kogan and Friedman.
 David Reich and Richard Kogan, “Congress Should Reject Proposals to Cut Non-Defense Program Funding,” CBPP, March 8, 2023, https://www.cbpp.org/research/federal-budget/congress-should-reject-proposals-to-cut-non-defense-program-funding.
 Chuck Marr and George Fenton, “Corporate Lobbying Campaign Against Biden Tax Proposals Is Inaccurate, Unpersuasive” CBPP, September 10, 2021, https://www.cbpp.org/research/federal-tax/corporate-lobbying-campaign-against-biden-tax-proposals-is-inaccurate.
Sharon Parrott is President of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Parrott has nearly three decades of experience at the Center and in government. Her expertise spans a broad range of issues, including policies to reduce poverty and expand opportunity, the intersection of the federal budget and low-income programs, and the use of data and analysis to inform policy debates.
Parrott rejoined the Center in 2017 after two years at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and served as the Center’s Senior Vice President for Federal Policy and Program Development before taking over as President in 2021. At OMB she served as Associate Director of the Education, Income Maintenance, and Labor Division, with budget and oversight responsibilities for the Departments of Labor and Education, the Social Security Administration, the human services programs at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and the nutrition programs at the Department of Agriculture. As Associate Director, Parrott helped design budget and policy proposals, craft regulations, implement programs, and address management and budget challenges in these agencies.
Parrott previously worked at Center from 2012 to 2014 as Vice President for Budget Policy and Economic Opportunity, focusing on the impact of budget and tax policy on the nation’s efforts to reduce poverty and hardship and promote economic opportunity.
Before then, she served as Secretary Sebelius’ Counselor for Human Services Policy at HHS from August 2009 until November 2012. At HHS, Parrott was a lead advisor on human services issues, including programs for low-income families and children, children who have been maltreated or are at risk of abuse, seniors and people with disabilities. Her work included a broad range of efforts, including early education, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), child support enforcement, child welfare, teen pregnancy prevention, community supports for seniors and people with disabilities, and the intersection of health reform and human services issues.
Parrott previously worked at the Center from 1993 through August 2009. Parrott was the Director of the Welfare Reform and Income Support Division and routinely provided technical assistance to federal policymakers, state agency officials, and state-level policy organizations on a range of issues related to income assistance programs and the interaction and integration of benefit program rules in Medicaid, SNAP, TANF, child care, and the Children’s Health Insurance Program.
Parrott also played a key role in the Center’s work on the federal budget, the impact of federal budget decisions on low-income populations, low-income tax policy, and policies that ensure that solutions to climate change do not adversely impact the economic well-being of low-income households.
In 1999 and 2000, Parrott was detailed to the District of Columbia's Department of Human Services, where she served as a Senior Policy Advisor on TANF, food stamps, and Medicaid issues.
She received a B.A. in economics and a master’s degree in social work from the University of Michigan.
Joel Friedman is Senior Vice President for Federal Fiscal Policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), where he specializes in U.S. federal budget and tax issues, and a Senior Fellow at the International Budget Partnership (IBP), where he focuses on budget transparency and accountability in countries around the world. Prior to his work at CBPP and IBP, he worked on the Democratic staff of both the Senate and House Budget Committees (as Deputy Staff Director and Director of Budget Analysis, respectively), and as a Financial Economist at the U.S. Office of Management and Budget. From 1996 to 2000, he worked in the South African Ministry of Finance as the U.S. Treasury's Resident Advisor, helping to develop and implement budget reforms with a focus on intergovernmental fiscal relations. He holds an M.P.A. from Princeton University’s School of Public and International Affairs and a B.A. from Pomona College.
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities
Who We Are
We are a nonpartisan research and policy institute that advances federal and state policies to help build a nation where everyone — regardless of income, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, ZIP code, immigration status, or disability status — has the resources they need to thrive and share in the nation’s prosperity.
What We Do
We combine rigorous research and analysis, strategic communications, and effective advocacy to shape debates and affect policy, both nationally and in states.
We work closely with a broad set of national, state, and community organizations to design and advance policies that promote economic justice; improve health; broaden opportunity in areas like housing, health care, employment, and education; and lower structural barriers for people of color and others in communities that continue to face systemic barriers to opportunity.
We promote federal and state policies that will build a stronger, more equitable nation and fair tax policies that can support these gains over the long term. We also show the harmful impacts of policies and proposals that would deepen poverty, widen disparities, and worsen health outcomes.
We work on policy implementation at the federal, state, and local levels to maximize the positive impact of policies and bring the lessons learned on the ground back to the policymaking process in Washington, D.C. and state capitals.
Our work — rooted in sound research and original data analysis, informed by our extensive knowledge of policy and how programs operate on the ground, and strengthened by our collaboration with a broad range of partners — is trusted by a wide range of researchers, policymakers, and media.
In 1981, Robert Greenstein founded the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) to analyze federal budget priorities, with a particular focus on how budget choices affect people with low incomes. In the Center’s early years, we focused on federal budget and tax issues, nutrition programs, and income assistance. Our work has broadened considerably over time and now includes research and advocacy on a wide range of issues including health care, housing, and the economic and health security of people who immigrated to the U.S.
Recognizing the critical role that state policy plays in economic and health security, we began extensive work on state-level policies in the 1990s. We founded — and continue to coordinate and foster — the State Priorities Partnership, a network of high-impact policy and advocacy organizations that now stretches across more than 40 states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia. Sharing with the Center a strong emphasis on designing and promoting policies that foster economic, health, and racial justice, these independent nonprofit organizations collaborate with a host of partners in their states to shape policy debates.
Over the last four decades, the Center has played a significant role, in collaboration with partners around the country, in major advances in economic and health security policies nationally and in states.
We have helped protect and expand health coverage for millions of people, extend and expand refundable tax credits that lift millions above the poverty line, and strengthen nutrition, housing assistance, and income support to help people afford basic needs. These policies improve people’s near-term well-being; promote equity across lines of race, ethnicity, immigration status, and gender; and have long-term payoffs for them and the country as a whole.
When the Center was founded in 1981, economic security programs lifted just 20 percent of people who would otherwise be poor above the poverty line. Prior to the pandemic in 2019, that figure had more than doubled to 46 percent; economic security programs lifted 34 million people above the poverty line that year, reducing the poverty rate from 22.8 percent to 12.2 percent. In 2020, during the pandemic and its economic fallout, economic security programs and temporary COVID-19 relief measures increased the number of people kept above the poverty line substantially to 53 million. Advances in economic security programs have reduced poverty across racial and ethnic groups while also narrowing disparities significantly, though large gaps remain.
Similarly, expansions we helped to drive in Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) subsidized coverage through federal and state marketplaces have changed the landscape of health coverage. In the early 1980s, Medicaid was small, the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) didn’t exist, and most people in low-paid jobs had no access to affordable coverage unless their employer provided it. Prior to the pandemic, some 81 million people — 25 percent of the U.S. population — received coverage through Medicaid, CHIP, or the ACA marketplaces.
State Priorities Partnership groups have secured important policy advances across the country. Among other victories, over the past several years, Partnership groups have helped to raise or protect roughly $40 billion in state revenue to support a range of investments, such as in education, health care, and infrastructure; have contributed to adoption of the ACA’s Medicaid expansion in a number of states; and have worked toward new or expanded state refundable tax credits in more than a dozen states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia, expanding state earned income tax credits by more than $1 billion and increasing their reach to millions more households.
The Center is also helping to build the next generation of state policy leaders through the State Policy Fellowship program. This program brings dynamic emerging leaders who know the challenges faced by communities of color, LGBTQ people, immigrants, tribal communities, and families with low incomes to Partnership groups and the Center by offering them two-year paid positions as policy analysts, as well as other supports, training, and networking opportunities.