On Thursday, President Obama signed an executive order creating the "National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform" -- what most people in D.C. are calling the debt commission. Advocates of the commission hope that it will help create a bipartisan solution to a politically charged and difficult issue--much like the Base Closure and Realignment Commission helped the government close military bases following the end of the Cold War.
The commission will have 18 members, and will be charged with creating recommendations for Congress to balance the budget, excluding interest on the debt, by 2015. Any recommendations must be approved by at least 14 of the 18 members. Six members, including at least two non-Democrats, will be appointed by the president, and the rest will be appointed by Congress, with an even split between appointments by the majority and the minority. In theory, Congress will take up the recommendations at the end of the year -- although it's not clear whether or not all of Congress will play along.
Obama has already named the co-chairs of the commission, former Wyoming Republican Senator Alan Simpson, and Erskine Bowles, Bill Clinton's former chief of staff.
At this point, there's no indication that the commission will recommend anything that would affect federal employees. But some federal workforce advocates, wary of past debt-cutting initiatives, said they will keep a watchful eye.
"A bipartisan commission might be the only politically feasible way to make some of the tough choices that will have to be made," said William Dougan, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees. "We are very concerned about the impact this commission could have on the federal workforce. Federal employee compensation makes up only a very small portion of the federal budget each year, yet it tends to be the first place many people look to make cuts."
Daniel Adcock, legislative director of the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association, praised Simpson and Bowles as "respected and even-handed Washington professionals." But he also noted that, in the past -- especially during the late 1980's and early 1990's -- federal retiree benefits faced cuts while entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security were untouched.
"It's easier to take the heat from 2.4 million federal annuitants, rather than 40 million Social Security beneficiaries," Adcock said. "As a captive audience, we're concerned that history will repeat itself."
The commission's recommendations are due in December, during the lame duck session in the current Congress.