By Kate Zernike
The New York Times
A Tea Party commission trying to “crowd-source” a plan to reduce the federal budget deficit says it found broad support for repealing the health care legislation passed last year and eliminating entire federal departments, but much less enthusiasm for changes to Medicare and Social Security.
Those programs are two of the biggest contributors to the nation’s deficit. Still, the Tea Party Debt Commission says that its proposals, which will be released in preliminary form Tuesday, add up to $6 trillion in savings over 10 years – more than the reductions proposed by President Barack Obama; or Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who is the chairman of the House Budget Committee; or the report of a bipartisan commission last year.
The Tea Party commission is hoping that with the help of conservative senators, it can influence the work of a bipartisan panel of 12 lawmakers that has been charged with finding at least $1.2 trillion in cuts over the next decade.
A copy of the preliminary findings was provided to The New York Times. A more formal report of the commission’s plans will be presented at a hearing on Capitol Hill on Nov. 17 – a week before the bipartisan panel is expected to complete its recommendations.
The Tea Party commission was formed by FreedomWorks, the libertarian advocacy group that is led by Dick Armey, the former House majority leader, and was one of the first organizations to cultivate the Tea Party. FreedomWorks named 12 commissioners and held nine hearings where it gave presentations on the budget deficit and solicited ideas on how to cut it.
The group also set up a website on which people were presented a series of choices about what to cut from the budget.
“What we’re trying to prove,” said Adam Brandon, a spokesman for FreedomWorks, “is that No. 1, there’s popular support for cuts, and that No. 2, it is possible to make the cuts that we’re talking about without raising new revenue.”
The commission’s preliminary recommendations tend to be ideas that conservatives have long supported. The FreedomWorks presentation argued that raising taxes could not balance the budget.
The menu of choices on the debt commission website did not include options that Democrats have suggested; for instance, requiring hedge fund managers to pay ordinary tax rates, rather than the lower 15 percent they pay now on so-called carried interest income.
Instead, would-be budget architects were offered stark choices: Would you prefer to reduce Social Security benefits for those with high incomes or raise the retirement age for Social Security to 70? End all foreign aid or eliminate the Department of Energy? Eliminate ethanol tax credits or end farm subsidies? Other proposals included privatizing air traffic control, reducing the pay for federal employees by 10 percent and eliminating AmeriCorps, the youth volunteer program.
A FreedomWorks memo on the preliminary findings said that more than 40,000 people visited the website to make recommendations for cuts.
The most popular idea, supported by 93 percent, was repealing what the site referred to as “Obamacare,” the health care overhaul legislation passed in March 2010. After that, the most popular ideas were reducing duplicative purchases of Pentagon supplies (90 percent), eliminating the Department of Education and privatizing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (81 percent each), and reducing discretionary spending to 2008 levels (76 percent).
When it comes to cutting Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, the report said visitors to the site were “more cautious” and “prefer reductions in peripheral elements,” like tightening eligibility for Social Security disability payments and reducing subsidies to teaching hospitals.
The report said that the top 10 choices would add up to $6 trillion in savings. But some of these proposals are vague or subject to year-to-year change (selling “underused” federal buildings, ending earmarks). Others are subject to dispute: FreedomWorks says that repealing the health care legislation would cut $1.2 trillion, but the Congressional Budget Office has projected that repealing the legislation would actually increase the deficit by $210 billion over the next 10 years.
Still, the report offers some sense of how the Tea Party might influence the debate when the joint congressional panel makes its recommendations in November.
The staff of Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, a Republican who was elected last year with heavy Tea Party support, will conduct the November hearing on the Tea Party plan.
The 12-member congressional committee, named as part of the deficit reduction deal in August, will release its proposal for at least $1.2 trillion in cuts over 10 years by Nov. 23. If a majority of its members can agree, the House and Senate must vote on their proposal by Dec. 23.
By Kate Zernike