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Do Now

What should Congress do about our national debt? Should the pain fall on the wealthiest Americans or on government programs, such as Medicare?


Why can’t Congress agree on how to handle debt? In August this year Congress resorted to setting up a special committee to find a way through the impasse over the budget deficit. The plan was to find reductions by bringing together 12 members of Congress in a Congressional Supercommittee. The goal was $1.2 trillion in deficit reductions over a decade.

As a bipartisan committee – meaning both political parties were represented equally, with six Democrats and six Republicans working together – the hope was that both sides could agree on a way to resolve the crisis.

Charged with framing recommendations on budget cuts for Congress to vote on by November 23, the committee faced clear choices: either to increase taxes or cut entitlements, meaning public programs, such as Social Security, healthcare and education.

Fundamentally this impasse is about political difference, highlighting the gulf between the two parties. Republicans in the committee attacked Democrats for opposing budget cuts to popular domestic programs, programs such as Medicare and Medicaid. They maintain that Democrat leaders insist on over-spending and, as such, adding to the deficit. Democrats, on the other hand, said Republicans wouldn’t accept any plan which involved raising taxes for the wealthiest Americans.

This is the deadlock. How is the pain to be divided up – should it fall on the wealthiest Americans in the form of abolishing the tax cuts instituted by George W Bush and reducing taxes, or should it be born by social programs, such as the public programs that provide benefits for the 14 million unemployed Americans? This would put hundreds of government programs on the chopping block to be cut as early as 2013.

Alice Rivlin, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who served as budget director for President Clinton, said, “Each side was prepared to offer more if they thought the other side was operating in good faith, … Each side distrusted the other. The Democrats were afraid to offer serious entitlement cuts because they thought the Republicans will just take that and not give any revenues … The Republicans said if we offer serious revenues, the Democrats will just take that and they’re not serious about the entitlement cuts.”


KQED Forum segment Clock Ticks for Supercommittee.
The congressional deficit reduction supercommittee faces a Wednesday deadline to reach an agreement on reducing the deficit. If the panel does not reach a deal, $1.2 trillion will automatically be cut from defense and domestic spending in 2013. We look at the politics behind the deliberations.

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More Resources for Follow-up Lessons

KQED News segment For Debt Committee, No Final-Hour Deal Apparent. Nov. 21, 2011
Monday is the last day the congressional supercommittee can reach a deficit-reduction deal and still make its Wednesday deadline. The legislation has to be publicly available for 48 hours before a vote, and the clock is ticking. But instead of announcing an agreement, the committee is widely expected to admit it has failed.


Maxine Einhorn

Maxine Einhorn is from London and has lived in the Bay Area for 12 years. She has worked in adult education in London,UK, for over twenty years as a tenured instructor and department manager. She has an MA in Film and TV from University of London and has taught, moderated and appraised academic work in film studies and media literacy at undergraduate and college level. She runs the ESL/ Post Secondary project at KQED which offers media-rich resources for and created by ESL educators.

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