By JEFFREY BENZING
WASHINGTON (November 9, 2011)—Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen still wants to "go big" with the congressional "supercommittee," favoring $4 trillion in total deficit reduction over 10 years, even as he's unsure that the group can craft a plan to curtail the deficit by its Nov. 23 deadline.
"This is a critical week. Everyone's going to be doubling down," said Van Hollen, who sits on the 12-member Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction and is the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee. "I think the jury's still out as to whether we'll reach an agreement."
And time is ticking away. The committee must decide how it might slash the deficit by at least $1.2 trillion with cuts to expensive programs like Medicare and elimination of tax loopholes. This is in addition to $900 billion in cuts slated by Congress this summer.
The supercommittee was created in August, following months of gridlock between Republicans and Democrats and further impasse between Congress and the White House. Their intransigence led to a downgrade of the nation's credit rating and the threat of government shutdowns.
Congress has failed to reach agreements to control the federal debt and growing deficit by cutting spending and increasing revenue.
Van Hollen, who was first elected in 2002 and has quickly risen in the party, was chosen by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to sit on the committee.
If committee members fail to find a fix before Thanksgiving, automatic cuts will be triggered to lop as much as $600 billion from the federal defense budget and $600 billion from other programs.
The supercommittee has held only five public hearings, and Erskine Bowles, coauthor of a plan to solve the deficit problem, told the body that he feared the group would fail the country.
"I have great respect for each of you individually," said Bowles, a Democrat and co-chairman of President Obama's fiscal responsibility commission. "But collectively, I'm worried you're going to fail."
Bowles said he's worried any plan would only meet minimum goals and that America would lose standing in the world as he saw this summer when a partisan stalemate led to the downgrade of the nation's credit rating.
Though the committee was formed because Congress had been unable to end the debt crisis this summer, Van Hollen said that the committee has been a good bipartisan forum.
Bowles testified with former Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., his co-chairman on the commission, about their plan that would use cuts to programs like Medicare and Medicaid, along with elimination of tax loopholes to drop the deficit by an additional $2.6 trillion over 10 years.
Also testifying were Alice Rivlin, a Democrat and founding director of the Congressional Budget Office, and former Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., who developed a similar bipartisan plan. Rivlin and Domenici were co-chairmen of the Bipartisan Policy Center's Debt Reduction Task Force.
Van Hollen has praised these plans as the framework for the type of proposal the committee should adopt.
Domenici told the committee a feasible plan must include both cuts to health care and increases in tax revenue. Doing one without the other won't solve the problem, he said, and those unwilling to compromise are pushing the country toward the "fiscal brink."
"They are both complicit in letting America destroy itself, letting this great democracy destroy itself, because we don't want to make tough decisions," Domenici said.
Van Hollen noted the challenge of balancing cuts with quality of service to taxpayers, particularly in terms of health care.
"There's no doubt we need to get a grip on the increasing costs as the result of the Baby Boom retirement," he said. "And there are smart ways to do it, and then there are ways that I think would impose a lot of unnecessary pain on Americans."
Health care will be the major driver of debt for the next several decades, according to data from the Congressional Budget Office. Health care spending is currently equal to about 5 percent of the nation's gross domestic product. By 2051, it will be about 12 percent, far outpacing Social Security, discretionary spending—which includes defense spending—and mandatory programs, all of which are expected stay about level.
Van Hollen later said he favors streamlining Medicare and Medicaid by modernizing them and focusing on the quality of care, rather than the size of the programs.
Success for the committee will be measured by whether it can find $1.2 trillion—or a slightly more ambitious $1.5 trillion—in cuts to stave off automatic "trigger" cuts.
But Bowles recommended $4 trillion in total cuts, saying that just meeting the minimum cuts would be close to failure.
"You wouldn't be accomplishing very much if you did that," Bowles said. "The effect it would have on how people would look at this country would really be devastating."
Meeting just the minimum cuts would offer only a momentary fix to the deficit problem, he said, putting the country back on the fiscal brink as debt creeps back up.
While Van Hollen favors going big, he said the committee is discussing a variety of different options. The goal is to find at least $1.2 to $1.5 trillion in cuts, he said.
"Let's take one step at a time," Van Hollen said. "I'm sure we'll face continuing challenges."
Congress must vote, without amendment or filibuster, on any recommendations made by the committee by Dec. 23.