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Nonpartisan group urges creation of U.S. budget panel

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Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2009

If Congress wants to save the country from financial calamity, it might have to take itself out of the picture, warns a Washington policy group.

Ballooning deficits, driven by health care and entitlement costs, threaten to overwhelm the budget during the next 10 years, according to the nonpartisan Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress. Unless spending habits change, the United States will have to borrow money to pay the interest on its debt, said John Boyer, the center's director of congressional relations.

"If we continue on this trajectory, we're going to get into this, and we're not going to be able to get our way out," Boyer said during a meeting Tuesday with Tribune-Review reporters and editors. "We're at the end of that road."

The Congressional Budget Office warned in July that interest on the federal debt will more than double by 2010, from 1 percent of gross domestic product to 2.5 percent.

The needed changes — including cuts to entitlement programs, restructuring the tax system and raising taxes — are so politically unpopular that Congress is incapable of making them, said Dana Martin, the center's chief of staff.

He and Boyer urged the creation of a commission that would spend two years studying federal spending, holding town hall meetings and crafting a massive government overhaul. The commission would present its final plan to Congress for an up-or-down vote, similar to the way Congress decides which military bases to close.

That would shield members from the political fallout of individual program cuts, Martin said. Bills to create this commission have been introduced in the Senate and House, but met stiff opposition from legislative leaders wary about ceding power, he said.

The House bill, introduced by Tennessee Democrat Jim Cooper, is backed by a bipartisan group of 75 co-sponsors, including four from Pennsylvania.

"Congress has demonstrated it can't get the nation's fiscal house in order," said U.S. Rep. Jim Gerlach, R-Chester County, a co-sponsor elected to Congress in 2002.

Asked whether he'd support tax hikes or entitlement cuts if it meant shoring up the country's financial future, Gerlach demurred, saying no specific proposals are before Congress. He added, though, that "some tough choices have to be made."

"If this is the best process to make those choices, let's move forward with it," Gerlach said.

Part of Congress' problem is that it wasn't designed to oversee an operation as large as the federal government has become, said Marvin Goodfriend, an economics professor at Carnegie Mellon University.

"Congress was not set up to do what we are asking it to do today," Goodfriend said.

Key to creating the commission are the Blue Dog Democrats, a coalition of fiscally conservative lawmakers that has become something of a third party in recent months, Martin said. The Republican Party has shrunk so much, its members no longer can check Democrat majorities and a Democrat president, he said.

It was the Blue Dog coalition that prevented Congress from passing a health care overhaul before the August recess, as President Obama wanted, Martin said.

"I think at this point, really, the Blue Dogs are virtually the only check on the Democratic Party," Martin said.

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