Deficit Commission Slashes Taxes For Wealthy, Corporations, While Raising Retirement Age And Cutting Spending

WASHINGTON — The president's deficit-commission report, scheduled for a vote by the full panel on Friday, proposes to slash tax rates for corporations and for high earners.

The top tax rate is currently 35 percent and is scheduled to rise to 39.6 percent in 2011. The commission would cut that rate to between 23 and 28 percent, while shaving between seven and nine points off the corporate rate.

The commission does propose taxing capital gains and dividends as ordinary income, a move that would result in a higher liability for the wealthy. It also eliminates some corporate tax breaks. But those losses for top earners would be more than offset by their tax cuts.

The commission also addresses Social Security, though the program does not contribute to the deficit and, in fact, is running a multi-trillion dollar surplus. The commissioners would raise the full retirement age to 69 gradually and the early retirement age to 64.

Social Security would be tilted toward a welfare program rather than a social insurance system if the commission's recommendation to provide poorer seniors with a "special minimum benefit" is enacted into the law.

The commission also proposes medical malpractice reform, a long-term goal of the GOP.

The commission had been scheduled to vote on the proposal as required by law on Wednesday, but the vote has been pushed to Friday, suggesting that the commissioners lack the 14 of 18 votes needed to approve it. Some conservatives intend to oppose the bill, including Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.), who is widely respected on fiscal issues by his House colleagues.

Sources close to members of the commission say that the proposal is virtually certain to be voted down and that President Obama has not been engaged with the process or deliberations.

Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, said Wednesday that he doesn't agree with everything in the report but will vote to support it. "I don't like everything in this package, but I like even less where our country is headed without it. It would be much easier to say no and to oppose this plan. I certainly would have done some things differently if I were writing it myself. But you can't have everything you want," he said.

House Budget Committee Chairman John Spratt (D-S.C.), who lost election in November, indicated in his comments to the commission that he'd also support it, but didn't come flat-out and say he would vote yes. "I think we should keep this process moving forward," he said, suggesting that if it failed the issue wouldn't be dealt with for years to come.

Commission member Alice Rivlin told the commission Wednesday she would be voting yes and Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), often a reliable Obama ally, said she would vote no. David Cote, the CEO of Honeywell -- yes, the CEO of Honeywell is on the commission -- said that he'd be voting in support; businesswoman Ann Fudge also said she supported the final product.

Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.), meanwhile, told HuffPost on Tuesday that if the plan kept the same "anemic" revenue approach - cutting taxes for the wealthy - he and other progressives would oppose it. The plan released today differs little in that respect from the one offered recently. "Their proposal on the revenue side was anemic. I've said that to both Alan and to Erskine," he said, referring to the co-chairs, Republican Alan Simpson and Democrat Erskine Bowles. At the commission's meeting Wednesday, he said that he was staying at the table, but was critical of the report. "To me, you punted," he said, charging that the plan didn't sufficiently tackle corporate tax breaks.

The proposal would also slash spending across the board. Becerra said he objected to what he called "this meat-axe approach of just making across the board cuts and assigning the pain 50-50 to schools and environmental clean up and senior housing, along with defense programs or wasteful security programs that are very expensive."

"I have a real difficult time saying that, DOD, unknown to us where their problems are, should have to pay X amount for its wasteful spending and our schools will pay the price at this commensurate rate, even though there may not have been any sign of wasteful spending on the part of our schools. Now, maybe there is, but I say target that instead of using the meat-axe. That's the biggest concern I have with their approach on the discretionary side," he said.

The commission meets Wednesday to discuss the proposal.

One key vote is former Service Employees International Union President Andy Stern, who is still on the SEIU's payroll in an emeritus capacity. The SEIU on Wednesday scorched the report, putting Stern in a difficult position if he intends to support it. "This proposal is a jobs killer at a time when our number one priority must be putting America back to work. The American people expect real solutions to create good jobs that support a family and bring fairness to our economy," said SEIU President Mary Kay Henry. "It's time for our policies to move beyond the Beltway to reflect the real world. For too long, we've forced the American people to pay the price for the failed economic policies that plunged our economy into crisis and racked up our debt. We need to reduce the deficit - and we can do so without breaking the back of American workers. We can do so without cutting the jobs of nurses, educators, first responders, fire fighters, and millions of other Americans."

Even as the deficit hyperbole hits a fever pitch in Washington, leading progressives are strenuously warning of the devastating effects a turn to austerity would have on the economy in both the short and long term.

There's a high road and a low road when it comes to deficit reduction, they argue. The high road approach includes robust job-creation measures in the short run and long-term investments in infrastructure, education, and other public goods. Sustained economic growth, after all, is the best way to reduce deficit spending.

The low road approach, by contrast, could stifle the economic recovery and accelerate the decline of the American middle class.

Progressives in recent weeks have introduced three of their own deficit-reduction plans, all of which call for increased spending until unemployment falls to manageable levels, and major public investments going forward, paid for through tax hikes for the rich and
for financial speculators.

One progressive member of Obama's deficit panel, Rep. Jan Schakowsky
(D-Ill.), drafted a comprehensive proposal that starkly contrasts with the one from the group's chairmen.

Demos, the Economic Policy Institute and The Century Foundation have produced a "Blueprint for Economic Recovery and Fiscal Responsibility."

And a Citizens' Commission On Jobs, Deficits And America's Economic Future, organized by the Campaign for America's Future, released its proposal on Tuesday.

One of the few areas of agreement between deficit hawks and progressives, interestingly enough, is that the once inviolable defense budget must take a massive hit -- somewhere on the order of $1 trillion over 10 years.

"What the proposals by Representative Schakowsky, EPI, Demos and the Century Foundation, and the Citizens' Commission all demonstrate is that we can reduce the deficit without cutting jobs or undermining the safety nets of Social Security and Medicare," said Mary Kay Henry. "These proposals offer real solutions to move our economy forward, reject the failed policies that created our current crisis, and respond to the demands of the American people to create good jobs."

The AFL-CIO is also out in opposition to the plan. "With this report the Deficit Commission once again tells working Americans to 'Drop Dead,'" said AFL head Richard Trumka. "No proposal on fiscal issues is serious that leaves the Bush tax cuts for the rich in place while raising taxes on the middle class and slashing Social Security and Medicare. All commission members should vote no on this misguided plan."