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A new push for an old idea on Capitol Hill — a commission to slash the country's debt


In Congress, there's a new push for an old idea - a commission to slash the country's debt. The debt has nearly doubled in the past decade. It's now more than $33 trillion. NPR congressional correspondent Deirdre Walsh sat down with a bipartisan duo in the House who say they can't wait any longer to act.

DEIRDRE WALSH, BYLINE: California Democrat Scott Peters is blunt. The Congressional Budget Office says Social Security will run out of money in a decade, and a 23% cut is looming.

SCOTT PETERS: We just can't wait any longer. The closer we get to that insolvency date, the more certain it is that benefits will be cut and the more expensive it will be to remedy that.

WALSH: He says right now, the government is paying more on interest on the debt than on Medicaid. That means less to invest in things like education and national defense. Michigan Republican Bill Huizenga says his own colleagues are ignoring the problem.

BILL HUIZENGA: I mean, they kind of have this notion of, hey, don't worry about it. We'll be able to either print our way out of it or it doesn't really matter what we borrow.

WALSH: But he thinks his constituents get the real consequences of piling up debt, like cuts in retirement checks and Medicare benefits.

HUIZENGA: I think there is a greater understanding of what's at stake for future generations.

WALSH: They want to create a bipartisan debt commission made up of lawmakers and outside experts to craft a plan to fix the debt, a plan that Congress would have to vote on after the 2024 election. But the last time a bipartisan debt commission tried this, in 2010, it failed to even agree on a plan. NPR pressed the lawmakers about the fact President Biden, who Peters endorsed, and former President Trump, who Huizenga backs, say changes to Social Security are off the table.

Doesn't that just make it so much harder when the leaders of both parties just don't want to deal with this issue at all?

HUIZENGA: They can be wrong (laughter).

WALSH: Are they wrong?

HUIZENGA: Yes, they're wrong.

WALSH: Peters waves off the idea that touching Social Security is political dynamite.

PETERS: To give people this impression that if we do nothing, that's good for Social Security, it's wrong. Social security is in the hospital. It needs care.

WALSH: Both say all ideas need to be on the table, the same ones that previous commissions held up - tax hikes, increase in the retirement age, cutting spending on health care and defense. Huizenga, who's in his 50s, is thinking of people his age who may be counting on getting $1,000 a month from Social Security but will be getting hundreds less if nothing changes.

HUIZENGA: Let's have the courage to at least have the conversation and give people, the voters, a benefit of the doubt that we can go in and have their best interest on both sides of the aisle to make sure that there is a vital safety net there.

WALSH: Senate leaders haven't weighed in, but the two people leading the effort there, Utah Republican Mitt Romney and West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin, are both retiring.


MITT ROMNEY: We all lived in the shadow of the greatest generation. If we don't fix this problem, we're going to be known as the worst generation.

WALSH: The White House told NPR if a commission became a Trojan horse to slash Medicare or Social Security, they would oppose it. Manchin rips that argument.

JOE MANCHIN: Trojan my butt. I mean, I'm so sick and tired of hearing this Trojan stuff from whatever side of the administration or whatever side of any political party.

WALSH: Peters says they don't need to be scared by past failures.

PETERS: It would so help the credibility of Congress for us to do this on a serious issue.

WALSH: And Huizenga says the country can't afford to wait. Top House Republicans say a bill to create the debt commission could be added to a must-pass spending bill in January.

Deirdre Walsh, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Deirdre Walsh is the congress editor for NPR's Washington Desk.