Deficit Commission’s Staff Salaries Raise a Red Flag

Is this country so bankrupt that we can’t even afford to fund our own commission to fix the problem?

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There is pretty much something for everyone to dislike in the recommendations by the co-chairmen of the national debt commission on what to do about the national fiscal shambles.

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Their proposal, which Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson called “a starting point,” included both spending cuts and tax increases and is just the first step in trying to solve the problem. Any action would have to be approved by a majority of the commission members and then ultimately by Congress and the president. All of that is very much a long shot at this point, especially post-election. So arguing over specifics of the proposal as if they were imminent is undoubtedly premature.

Just like a drunk coming off a long bender who decided to go dry and seek treatment--the cure for our fiscal woes are not going to be painless. We’ve had our good time and now it’s time for austerity and responsibility.

But the bipartisan commission, which has a December 1 deadline, must work quickly. And the partisan differences which are likely to be expressed within the commission mirror what can be expected between the Democrats and Republicans in Congress over how to solve our fiscal problems and move forward to grow the economy.

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Fourteen of the 18 commissioners must agree in order to send any package to Congress for a vote in December.

There is also at least one red flag about the commission and its work, which was highlighted in a Washington Post piece this week.

The article revealed that the salaries of a quarter of the commission’s staff are actually being paid by special interest groups.

For example, several senior staffers of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform are paid by private groups that have previously advocated cuts to entitlement programs--the Peter G. Peterson Foundation and the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, which is also partly funded by the Peterson group.

Bruce Reed, the panel's executive director, defended the staffing arrangement to the Washington Post as fiscally responsible and said the staff includes a broad range of views. Other staffers paid by outside entities include an analyst from the liberal-leaning Economic Policy Institute.

"We've got wonks from across the spectrum who have been working on this issue for years," Reed told the Post. "Every possible voice from left, right, or center has a voice on the commission."

But many, including former Democratic Rep. Barbara B. Kennelly, who heads the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, are very concerned.

Reed told the Post about half a dozen panel employees are paid by outside entities rather than the commission, which has a budget of about $500,000. He said the arrangement, while unusual, is a smart way to limit costs by a panel devoted to the same goal.

"We have a very small budget, so we begged everyone we could find in both parties across the spectrum to sign up and help," said Reed, who is on leave as president of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. "Part of our job is not to add to the problem ourselves."

Is this country so bankrupt that we can’t even afford to fund our own commission to look at the problem? This throws into question how objective a group like this--or for that matter even Congress--can be about our fiscal situation and what to do about it.

It’s a question worth considering.

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