MICHAEL SMERCONISH: Congress needs a debt vote to get serious about issue

By Michael Smerconish

Start voting. That’s my wish for the Congress when it comes to solutions regarding our nearly $15 trillion debt.
Three major bipartisan efforts in Washington offered long-term solutions to our astronomical indebtedness, but none resulted in up-or-down votes in Congress that would have provided a measure of accountability for the folks at home.
Simpson-Bowles was the first. After about a year of painstaking work, that bipartisan commission, made up of 18 members, could not get the requisite 14 votes to force congressional action on its plan.
The members’ recommendations were a laundry list of third-rail issues: cutting the number of federal workers and the Defense Department; increasing the cost of participating in veterans’ and military health care; raising the Social Security eligibility age; and reforming the tax code, including eliminating many tax credits and deductions.
They left no stone unturned. No special interest was left unscarred. Yet there was no vote, so voters lack a measuring stick to judge their members of Congress on the Simpson-Bowles proposal.
Instead, in the spring, House Republicans passed a partisan measure that would have cut federal spending by nearly $6 trillion while embracing a plan by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., to reform Medicare. The plan failed to secure a single Democratic vote.
The next major bipartisan effort was the attempt by President Obama and House Speaker John A. Boehner to work out a grand bargain on raising the debt ceiling. It was reported at the time that the two sides were on the verge of agreeing to a two-stage strategy for raising the debt limit and cutting more than $4 trillion out of the federal budget through 2021. But those negotiations collapsed and deteriorated into finger-pointing.
It was the subsequent increase in the debt ceiling that gave rise to the 12-member supercommittee charged with coming up with a plan to cut the deficit by $1.2 trillion over 10 years by Thanksgiving week. Its failure is supposed to trigger automatic cuts in 2013.
Former Sen. Alan Simpson, one of the co-chairs of Simpson-Bowles, said as much when I spoke to him last week. A bipartisan group of 11 commission members – three shy of the number needed to force a vote in Congress – supported the recommendations, he reminded me.
But still there is no definitive action in Washington, and the potential result of this inaction, Simpson told me, continues to be frightening.
“In this next year, a lot of things are going to happen,” he said. “You’re going to see chaos in this country. You’re going to see the rating agencies step in. You’re going to see inflation kick in. If they can’t get it done, you’re going to see interest (rates) go up.
“And guess who gets hurt the worst? The little guy they always talk about, the vulnerable. Well, when people begin to see what’s going on and nobody’s doing anything, I think the people who play chicken and don’t have the guts to do something in this situation will be the ones who will lose in November 2012.”
Here’s hoping he’s wrong about the pending economic catastrophe and right about politicians who exhibit cowardice.
Michael Smerconish writes a weekly column for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may contact him via www.smerconish.com.