James Clyburn: Trigger Option Not So Bad

Clyburn talks with Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.).

There's just over a week to go before the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction — better known as the super committee — hits the Nov. 23 deadline to reach a deal. But the bipartisan, 12-member panel, charged with finding at least $1.2 trillion in new deficit cuts, doesn't appear to be even close.

The Root spoke with Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), assistant Democratic leader and a member of the super committee, about why he can't take the current Republican proposal seriously, his argument that Congress actually has accomplished some things this year and his view that, if the committee can't strike a complete deal, then across-the-board trigger cuts are "not all that bad."


The Root: The latest committee plan getting buzz is this idea of punting some responsibilities down the road — deciding on an amount of new revenues to be raised, but leaving the details to other committees in Congress. Is this seriously under consideration right now?

James Clyburn: That's been discussed, but I don't know that it's a plan seriously under consideration. It's never been discussed in the committee — there are a lot of sidebar meetings going on. We've had a plan that was put out by Senator Baucus that immediately became "the Democrats' plan," but it was never the Democrats' plan. I'm not sure that this plan put out by Senator Toomey can be called the Republican plan. These happen to be two members who have laid out plans. [Laughs.]

I've laid out a plan, though I've never made it public, as to how I think it ought to be done. So we're all putting our positions out there, but I don't think we've done anything that can be called an official plan.

TR: Speaking of Toomey's proposal, it would create about $300 billion in new revenue, but paired with a full extension of the Bush tax cuts. Do you think that's a good first step?


JC: It creates new revenue? You're putting $300 billion on the table, and you're taking $800 billion off the table. I don't consider that new revenue. That's a $500 billion hole. So how can you take that seriously?

TR: You've also been at odds with Senator Baucus' plan to lower the deficit by $4 trillion. Your concern is that it trims Medicare too much?


JC: That's part of the concern that I have, among other things. I've made it public that I don't support that plan, and I don't think it's going to be put out there as the Democratic proposal. In fact, Republicans have already said that they don't support the plan.

TR: What do you think, then, of the trigger option if the super committee can't find an agreement, or can't reach the full amount? After all, half of the cuts would come from defense, while Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security and most programs that benefit the poor would be exempt.


JC: I don't think the trigger option is all that bad. It all depends on what's done in the process of getting to a trigger. I think that if we were to do $800 billion in cuts and $400 billion in revenue, that's $1.2 trillion that can be a down payment on a trigger that could get us to $4 trillion. The trigger ought to be there not to do the task but to complete it.

Now, some people may think that we should do $600 billion in cuts and $200 billion in revenues. That would get us to $800 billion, and then trigger another $400 billion to get us just to $1.2 trillion. It's not all that bad to do, but I think something ought to be done first as a significant down payment.


TR: Conventional wisdom says, though, says that Congress is just too dysfunctional to reach any bipartisan agreement. How are you feeling about the super committee's chances?

JC: I feel good about our chances. I feel better today than I did 48 hours ago. It will still be difficult, but I think that with each passing day, people realize more and more that we've got to restore Americans' confidence in our elected officials. We've got to show that we are people who can get something done. I think that it will be highly disappointing if we don't do anything.


TR: But that's what Democrats have been saying all year, during round after round of trying to negotiate. How is this time any different?

JC: I'm not saying it's any different, but time's running out. Remember, we did $917 billion in cuts when we passed the Budget Control Act. That was not enough, so the deal is that we need to do another $1.2 to $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction to get our house in order. That $917 billion was the first step. The second step is to do $1.2 to $1.5 trillion.


I think the third step would be to also do a big jobs package, using the Overseas Contingency Operations account that we call OCO. Real deficit reduction comes from getting people back to work. We could use that account, which according to [the Congressional Budget Office] will produce $930 billion in savings, to pay for job creation, unemployment insurance and other budget fixes that you know we've got to do.

So if you start counting this all up, including the $917 billion that's already done, it gets us there. All of these have been steps in the right direction.


Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.

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