Progressive Coalition Warns Congress, Obama Against Deficit Commission

A coalition of 56 progressive organizations sent a letter Wednesday to Congressional leaders and the White House asking them not to agree to the creation of a debt commission proposed by Sens. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) and Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), which they said unjustly limits Congressional debate and "paints a target" on Social Security and Medicare.

Leaders of member groups, including labor, civil rights and Social Security advocates, say they haven't seen enough details on the alternative deal currently being struck between Conrad, House leadership and the White House. But their united attack on the Conrad-Gregg bill "can be taken as a warning" that similar opposition awaits any bill that would "fast-track" social-services cuts through the legislature, Campaign for America's Future co-director Roger Hickey said on a conference call with reporters Wednesday.

Several progressive leaders on the conference call acknowledged the need for debt reduction in the long term, but they said attending to the dismal state of the economy -- particularly unemployment -- requires more federal spending in the short term, not less.

"At the moment, we really need to be paying attention to the jobs crisis in the country," said Gerald Shea, assistant to the president of the AFL-CIO. The debt commission, Shea said, "really is just a distraction" and is "wrongheaded."

"If Conrad wants to get serious about fiscal responsibility, there are ways to do it without hurting women and children," National Women's Law Center Vice President Joan Entmacher said. For instance, Congress ought to pass health reform, restore the estate tax and change laws that allow hedge fund traders to pay lower tax rates than the average worker, she said. And then there's the $145 billion in bonuses the financial sector is distributing to its employees this week.

"Seniors already believe that Social Security is being used by the government as a piggy bank," said former Connecticut Democratic Rep. Barbara Kennelly, who now heads the National Committee to Protect Social Security and Medicare "They are asking why retirees or future retirees pay the price for the excesses of Wall Street."

Kennelly questioned whether the White House is "tone deaf" for considering cuts to social services given how much Americans are hurting. "I am really very amazed that the White House right now would have to have a commission to look at Social Security when we've never needed it more," she said.

Under the Conrad-Gregg language, an 18-member panel would get up-or-down votes from both houses of Congress on whatever spending cuts or tax increases 14 of them are able to agree upon.

Conrad threatened last week to hold up a bill which would increase the national debt ceiling -- necessary to keep the government functioning -- unless his bill makes it in as an amendment. While Conrad deals with the White House, Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) said Wednesday afternoon that he and Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) are also determined to get the debt commission at all costs.

"Sen. Voinovich and I and others are going to insist on a vote on that and see whether we can get those 60 votes. If we can't, then we've got to think about an exception to bar it," Lieberman said.

Voinovich insisted that the commission needs to be bipartisan, although he didn't show much sympathy for the will of the majority in the Capitol's other chamber. "I'd like to see us get 60 votes here and say, 'This is the way to get the job done,' and then say to the House Members, 'You may not like this, but this is a way to do something for the American people, and it's on a bipartisan basis," Voinovich said.

For his part, Conrad said Wednesday afternoon that his compromise with the White House awaits guarantees "in writing" to have a commission "that would be credible, and that means to get a vote on the recommendations of the commission." Conrad said he expected to receive those documents and then meet to discuss them later Wednesday.

The proposed 18-member panel would get an up-or-down votes by both houses of Congress on whatever spending cuts or tax increases 14 of them are able to agree upon.

Read the full letter:

We write with strong opposition to the proposal of Senators Kent Conrad, Judd Gregg and others to create a deficit-reduction commission that would override the normal legislative process and replace it with expedited procedures prohibiting amendments and limiting debate. We write with an increasing sense of urgency, because plans to vote on the Conrad-Gregg proposal on January 20th or soon thereafter, as part of the debt ceiling bill. If the Conrad-Gregg proposal were to become law, it could dramatically change by stealth critical benefits and services so vital to America's families.

Those supporting this circumvention of the normal process have stated openly the desire to avoid political accountability. Americans-seniors, women, working families, people with disabilities, youth, young adults, children, people of color, veterans, communities of faith and others-expect their elected representatives to be responsible and accountable for shaping such significant, far-reaching legislation.

Any deficit reduction measures should be carried out in a responsible manner, providing a fairer tax system and strengthening-rather than slashing-Social Security and Medicare. We should be strengthening, not slashing, vital programs like Medicaid, Unemployment Compensation, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps), EITC, Supplemental Security Income, school meals, Early Head Start, Head Start, Child Care Development Fund, Chafee Foster Care Independence Program, National Family Caregivers Support Program, Individual Disability Education Act, vocational rehabilitation and other programs and services crucial to struggling lower income and middle-income people in every corner of our country.

And as unemployment continues to grow, we need a real debate about how to balance the need for economic recovery and productive public investment with the goal of long-term budget responsibility. The American people are likely to view any kind of expedited procedure, where most members are sidelined to a single take-it-or-leave-it vote, as a hidden process aimed at eviscerating vital programs and productive investment.

As you know, the current effort to reform the health-care sector seeks to achieve reductions in Medicare spending, without cutting benefits. But the proposed budget commission-which will be viewed as a way to actually cut Medicare benefits, while insulating lawmakers from political fallout-could confuse people and undermine the reform effort. And an American public that only recently rejected privatization of Social Security will undoubtedly be suspicious of a process that shuts them out of all decisions regarding the future of a retirement system that's served them well in the current financial crisis.

We urge you to act decisively to prevent the creation of such an extraordinary and undemocratic budget commission.


AFL-CIO - American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations
AFSCME - American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees
Alliance for Retired Americans
American Society on Aging
American Association of People with Disabilities
American Association of University Women
Americans for Democratic Action
Change to Win
Campaign for America's Future
Center for Medicare Advocacy
Common Cause
Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund
Food Research and Action Center
Frances Perkins Center
Generations United
Global Policy Solutions
Health & Medicine Policy Research Group
International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace & Agricultural
LGBT Caucus of the American Academy of Physician Assistants, Inc.
MoveOn.org Political Action
National Asian Pacific Center on Aging
National Association for Hispanic Elderly
National Association of Area Agencies on Aging
National Association of Mother Centers and Its MOTHERS Initiative
National Caucus and Center on Black Aged, Inc.
National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare
National Council of Women's Organizations
National Indian Council on Aging
National Organization for Women
National Hispanic Council on Aging
National Senior Citizens Law Center
National Women's Law Center
OWL - The Voice of Midlife and Older Women
Pathways PA
Pension Rights Center
People for the American Way
Progressive Democrats of America
Project to Defend and Improve Social Security
SEIU - Service Employees International Union
United Methodist General Board of Church & Society
Voices for America's Children
Wider Opportunities for Women
Women's Institute for a Secure Retirement
The Women's Research and Education Institute
AFGE Council 220
AFGE Local 3937, AFL-CIO
California Alliance for Retired Americans
Coalition of Wisconsin Aging Groups
DelcoAction Seniors
New York Statewide Senior Action Council
Pennsylvania Alliance for Retired Americans
Puget Sound Alliance for Retired Americans

Ryan Grim contributed reporting.