Super committee running out of time

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) (C) is questioned by reporters as he arrives for a meeting with fellow members of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, or 'super committee,' in the U.S. Capitol Nov. 18, 2011 in Washington, D.C.

Kai Ryssdal: If you'll take a moment to check your calendars, you'll see that means the super committee has a mere five days left in which to find $1.2 trillion in budget savings. So far, the six Democrats and six Republicans on the panel can't even agree to meet in the same room, much less on ways come up with a 13-figure amount that's mutually agreeable.

Should they raise taxes? Cut spending? Do both? Maybe employ some creative accounting?

Because it's not like Congress has never played fast and loose with budget figures before. So we sent Marketplace's David Gura off today to come up with a way to tell super committee fact from fiction.


David Gura: The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are winding down, and that means we'll spend almost a trillion dollars less than we projected over the next 10 years. To some members of the super committee, that sounds like savings.

Alison Fraser is with The Heritage Foundation.

Alison Fraser: This is absolutely a totally phony gimmick.

Gordon Adams: It's about as bad a budget gimmick as you can possibly imagine, because the numbers aren't real.

Gordon Adams teaches political science at American University. He says we're talking about a projection here, not real savings.

Ryan McConaghy is with Third Way, a centrist think tank. He says it'd be like giving a rooster credit for the sunrise.

Ryan McConaghy: That's not a decision that the super committee made, just like that's not a decision the rooster made.

Here's another suggestion: Some lawmakers want to use those hundreds of billions justify an extension of the payroll tax cut.

Bob Bixby: Well, a gimmick is a gimmick.

That's Bob Bixby of The Concord Coalition. He says this stems from a huge, fundamental problem the super committee faced from the very beginning: Members disagreed about "the baseline," where they're starting from.

Howard Gleckman is with the Tax Policy Center.

Howard Gleckman: In other words, they have to cut $1.2 trillion, but $1.2 trillion off of what?

Republicans want to make the Bush-era tax cuts permanent -- they're set to expire at the end of 2012. That would dramatically change the baseline by trillions. Gleckman says it's like Republicans and Democrats are planning a trip, but they're having this fight:

Gleckman: Do you start your trip from Buenos Aires, or do you start your trip from Greenland?

Congress gave the super committee a lot of latitude. Gleckman says they've spent a lot of time arguing about the basics, and there's not much time left.

Gleckman: They left it deliberately vague, and now, the chickens, as they say, are coming home to roost.

In Washington, I'm David Gura for Marketplace.

About the author

David Gura is a reporter for Marketplace, based in the Washington, D.C. bureau.

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