As recently as February, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy was dismissive of the idea of a congressional commission on deficit reduction. In fact, the California Republican made it sound like such an endeavor would be a pointless waste of time, answering questions we already know the answers to.
“Look, I don’t need a commission to tell me where there’s waste, fraud and abuse,” the GOP leader told reporters. “I don’t need a commission to tell us where we’re spending too much. I don’t need a commission to tell us we’re $31 trillion debt. Nobody needs a commission in the American public to tell us that we have spent too much, just like any family.”
Evidently, McCarthy has changed his mind. NBC News reported yesterday on what the House speaker told Fox News:
“After today, I’m going to put a commission together to look at the entire budget,” he said. He added, “I want to make it a bipartisan commission that we can be very serious about looking long term to solve this problem once and for all.”
Right off the bat, you might be asking yourself, “Wait, haven’t there already been a bunch of fiscal commissions”? The answer is, “Oh my, yes.”
In fact, Ezra Klein put together a good summary on this 10 years ago: “Here is a partial list of bipartisan budget negotiations we’ve had since 2010: The Simpson-Bowles Commission. The Domenici-Rivlin commission. The Cantor-Biden talks. The Obama-Boehner debt-ceiling negotiations. The Gang of Six talks. The ‘Supercommittee.’ The Obama-Boehner fiscal-cliff talks. All these negotiations have one thing in common: They ultimately failed.”
Quite right. What’s more, they failed because, in each instance, the commissions asked Republicans to make some concessions on taxes that the party refused to consider.
What’s more, the idea that Congress might benefit from, as McCarthy put it, “a commission together to look at the entire budget” is especially odd given that there’s already a House Budget Committee and Senate Budget Committee, which are responsible for — you guessed it — looking at the entire budget.
But as it turns out, that’s not the most important detail. Rather, what stood out as especially notable was why the House speaker believes his commission would be worthwhile.
After McCarthy talked about his soon-to-be-unveiled commission, he complained, “We only got to look at 11% of the budget” to find the spending cuts in the pending budget deal. Asked why the rest of the budget was deemed off-limits, the Republican leader replied, “Because [President Joe Biden] walled off all the others. The majority driver of the budget is mandatory spending. It’s Medicare, Social Security, interest on the debt. So you only have 11% to look at this budget.”
The House speaker’s syntax got a little clumsy, but the larger point was more or less accurate: In the budget talks that wrapped up this past weekend, negotiators agreed not to touch Social Security, Medicare, and defense spending. The result was a fight over a small sliver of the larger budget pie.
But that’s precisely what made McCarthy’s larger message so provocative: He wants yet another commission to tackle the parts of the budget that Republicans weren’t able to touch in this latest fight. Like what? Well, according to the House speaker, “The majority driver of the budget is mandatory spending. It’s Medicare [and] Social Security.”
In other words, according to McCarthy’s own assessment, Biden wouldn’t let Republicans go after Social Security and Medicare in the debt ceiling fight, but the speaker still hopes to target the programs, and he sees another commission as a possible vehicle for the partisan goal.
As the commission takes shape — if it takes shape — be sure to keep McCarthy’s unexpected candor in mind.