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Helping lower the national debt

by Alecia Warren
| April 25, 2010 9:00 PM

Bruce Reed has his work cut out for him.

Specifically, the future of the nation.

Reed, a Coeur d'Alene native as well as chief executive officer of the Democratic Leadership Council and former staff member of the Clinton administration, has been named executive director of a federal commission to reduce the national deficit.

His official task with the 18-member, bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform: To help make recommendations to Congress on how to lower the national debt, which was around $12.8 trillion and counting this week.

"Terrifying," Reed said with a laugh at being tasked with the responsibility. "No, it's exciting. It's the challenge of our times. It won't be easy, but it's urgently necessary, and our country's going to be wrestling with this issue for some time to come."

The commission includes six Republicans and six Democrats from Congress. The other six have been appointed by President Barack Obama, including the commission co-chairs, former Wyo. Sen. Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, former chief of staff for the Clinton Administration.

Bruce, son of former Idaho Sen. Mary Lou Reed and Coeur d'Alene attorney Scott Reed, was also among the president's appointees.

"A lot of good work has been done in the past on this issue in developing possible options," said Bruce, 50, who now resides in Washington, D.C. "The real challenge is in forging bipartisan consensus on actions that will be comprehensive enough to solve the problem."

The group has been assigned to meet two goals, Bruce said. The first: Making recommendations on how to put the budget in primary balance by 2015.

The other is recommending how to manage the substantial gap of roughly 5 percent to 6 percent between what the federal government is projected to spend and what it's projected to take in.

"We're talking trillions of dollars of difference between what the federal government is on the hook to spend and what it's expected to bring in," Bruce said. "As every family knows, there's a limit on the amount of debt we can take on without the ship going under."

The commission is just getting under way, he said.

The group will start holding monthly public meetings next month, and commission subgroups will meet regularly to sort through options and try to find common ground.

"Working across party lines is never easy in Washington, but on an issue this important, I'm hopeful that we can do it," he said. "There's no way we can tackle this problem without that."

Reed, who was chief domestic policy adviser in the Clinton administration, said he might be able to borrow from his past successes.

"The most satisfying work in the Clinton administration was working across party lines to reform the welfare system and to balance the budget in the '90s," he said. "The challenge we faced then was not as vast as the one we face now, but we proved it could be done and that people working in good faith could put politics aside and make progress. I think that was good training for this effort."

He wasn't ready to throw out specific ideas just yet.

"I don't want to speak for the commission before they've had a chance to meet," he said. "We're eager to put all the options on the table and not knock anything off at this point."

Idaho Republican Sen. Mike Crapo has also been appointed to the commission.

He said he hopes the commission won't be dragged into petty politics.

"I believe that short of our national defense and the war against terror, there is probably no greater threat to the U.S. as a nation than our fiscal responsibility right now," Crapo said. "I think it's a little too early to tell how robust the (commission) solutions will be. But yes, I do believe there is potential for this commission to have a significant effect on our fiscal policy in this country."

Crapo said he is already opposed to the idea of raising taxes to address the national debt.

"I think that's a very big mistake," he said.

Instead, he would like to see more controls on Congress to curb spending.

He anticipates the commission will break down federal spending into health care entitlements like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, as well as discretionary spending.

"It will be helpful in both categories so Congress cannot simply continue to waive budget requirements and spend as though there were no tomorrow," Crapo said.

Some of his ideas for achieving that include a balanced budget amendment or a constitutional limit on the percentage of the GDP that can spent.

The deadline for recommendations is Dec. 1, after which Congress will vote on the commission's ideas.

Bruce said he was glad the commission must have 14 member votes to make a recommendation.

"We can only make progress if it's bipartisan," he said. "We're hoping to show that bipartisanship is still alive."

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