On January 18, 2024, by a largely partisan vote of 22-12, the House Budget Committee favorably reported H.R. 5779, taking the last legislative step needed to bring the Fiscal Commission Act of 2024 to the House Floor for a vote.  The Fiscal Commission created by this bill will squeeze every possible dollar of savings out of Social Security and Medicare without consideration for the adequacy of benefits during the Commission’s deliberations.  It will make it easier to enact deep cuts to these critical programs that could never pass Congress through the normal legislative process because of their unpopularity with the voting public.

The goals and duties of the Commission are entirely one-sided:  they focus on exploring and improving the fiscal condition of the Nation and educating the public on the risks and dangers posed by federal debt.  There is no requirement that adequacy of Social Security and Medicare benefits be considered by the Commission, or that the public be educated on the value to the country of the programs funded by the federal government.

The Commission created by this bill is composed of 12 voting members of Congress along with four nonvoting outside experts, equally divided by party and by Houses of Congress.  The Commission’s recommendations only require affirmative votes by a simple majority of seven voting members of the Commission, so long as at least two votes in favor come from each political party.  As an example, if all six Republican Commissioners vote in favor of recommendations to cut Social Security and Medicare, the proposals would be approved even if only one-third of the Democratic Commissioners (two Commissioners) voted in favor.

The deadline for the Commission to vote on its recommendations is December 12, 2024, though the deadline could be extended to May 15, 2025, by a simple majority vote, so long as at least two of the affirmative votes come from each party.  The report, recommendations, and legislative language are not required to be made public until 24 hours after the Commission has voted on the recommendations, making it extremely difficult for members of the public to effectively express their opposition to the legislation before the vote.

After the Commission votes on its recommendations, the legislation is fast-tracked through Congress on an extremely short timeline.  There are a maximum of three days that can pass between the Commission’s vote and transmission of the legislative language to Congress and the President.  The legislation must be introduced in the House within three additional days and in the Senate on the day it is transmitted.  In the House, the legislative Committees to which the bill is referred have five legislative days to report out the legislation, but no amendments are allowed during that process.  In the Senate, the bill goes directly onto the Calendar without any Committee reviewing it at all, and may be called up for debate once two legislative days have passed from the day of introduction.

This timeline allows for a maximum of 11 legislative days to pass from the day the bill is voted on by the Commission to the day it is eligible for consideration on the Floor of the House, and a maximum of a mere five legislative days before it can be considered in the Senate.  Adding insult to injury, the initial deadline of December 12, 2024 is the maximum time allowed for the Commission to act; there is no prohibition on the Commission completing its recommendations and voting earlier than this deadline.

As an example, the Commission could vote on its recommendations in early November after election day, thus starting the clock running, with the Congressional vote occurring a mere 11 days later in the House and five days later in the Senate, assuming Congress is in session and each day is a separate legislative day.  In other words, the report could become public after the next election and the legislation could be voted on during a lame duck Congress, which would necessarily include a number of Members who would not be returning the following legislative session.  This process is designed to shield members of Congress who vote for the legislation from accountability to the voting public – their constituents – who have a tremendous stake in the outcome of these votes.

In the House, once the bill is brought to the Floor, all possible procedural objections to the bill are waived and there is a limit of two hours of debate, equally divided by proponents and opponents of the legislation.  In the Senate, procedural objections are also waived, but the Senate’s ability to debate the bill itself remains unlimited.  The retention of this ability to filibuster the bill itself in the Senate is the only remaining option for slowing down the legislative process so the American public can have some time to understand the implications of the changes to Social Security, Medicare and the vast array of government programs that would be included in the legislation.

Proponents of fiscal commissions claim they do not inevitably lead to cuts in Social Security and Medicare because ultimately it is members of Congress who will determine the fate of the Commission’s recommendations by casting votes for or against the legislation.  But the process created by H.R. 5779 is clearly designed to minimize public input into the process, thus removing much of the pressure to vote down dangerous cuts to earned benefit programs until well after the votes have been cast.

If H.R. 5779 is enacted, while most of the nation will be distracted by gatherings of family and friends over the holidays, Congress could be taking critical votes that would unravel the foundations of economic security for generations.  The White House has called fiscal commissions “death panels” for Social Security and Medicare for good reason.