Congress Struggling to Cut Deficit

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October 16, 2011

1.299 trillion. That number represents the 2011 fiscal year federal budget deficit.  In an earlier Understanding Fiscal Responsibility blog post, Scott Wylie wrote about ways teachers could help students conceptualize such large numbers. Members of Congress also must face that number as they determine how to reduce the country’s debt.

In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Janet Hook reported on Congress’ progress to make budget cuts to reduce the deficit.  Her article focuses on Congress’ most recent set of roadblocks and specifically on the committee tasked with creating this plan.

When was this committee formed, and what exactly is it meant to do?

As part of the agreement for raising the debt ceiling over the summer, this new committee, named the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, was created to draft a plan that will reduce the deficit by $1.2 trillion over the next ten years.

Why is this committee in the news?

This past Friday, the Joint Select Committee received proposals from various other Congressional committees.  The proposals, however, focused more on what not to cut rather than what to cut, according to Hook.  She explains:

House Democrats said the panel should leave Social Security unscathed, raise taxes and avoid touching social programs.  House Armed Service Committee members warned against Pentagon cuts.  Senate Finance Committee Republicans did suggest cuts in Medicare spending, but eschewed tax increases.

Rather than providing this committee with potential areas of the budget to cut, Hook notes that each committee rushed to protect its own programs.

The committee received these proposals on the same day that the Treasury Department released its report on the 2011 fiscal year. Though government revenue rose 6.5% due to higher income-tax receipts, spending rose simultaneously due to the interest being paid on loans, Medicare, and Social Security.

Hook focuses the second half of her article on yet another challenge this committee faces.  Both Democrat and Republican leaders believe that creating jobs will help reduce the deficit and thus have pushed the committee to include job creation in its proposals.  Since President Obama’s recent jobs bill failed to pass in the Senate (due to a largely party-line vote), Republicans and Democrats alike hope to see the committee find a jobs bill on which both parties will agree.

Teachers could use this article to introduce the concept of committees in Congress, and how committees influence the legislative process.  Students could participate in a class discussion guided by the following questions:  How are committees formed?  What is the primary role of a committee in Congress? Do committees need to have an equal number of Democrats and Republicans? How might this balance (or lack thereof) shape the bill a committee proposes?  Teachers could then connect this article to an earlier lesson on lobbying, which discusses the particular committee on which this article focuses.

Teachers also could use this article as an additional resource in a discussion on the federal deficit.  The article mentions a number of proposed cuts, as well as different ways to for the government increase its revenue.  Students may be asked to express their opinion based on the options given.  Alternatively, teachers could assign groups of students (or individuals) a single proposal and ask them to research why members of Congress believe that proposal is the best way to reduce the deficit.  This small research project could culminate in student presentations or a formal debate.

Finally, students could research the partisan nature of the proposals sent to this committee.  Hook reports that, though Congressional committees submitted these proposals, the proposals seemed to represent “one party or the other.” What does each party propose the government should do to cut the deficit?  Do those ideas clearly align with certain proposals made by committees? As students answer these questions, they should be encouraged to develop their own opinions on how best to address the federal budget deficit and national debt.

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