Skip to content

Health On The Hill: CBO Chief Testifies At ‘Super Committee’ Hearing

Jackie Judd talks to KHN’s Mary Agnes Carey about the “getting down to business” atmosphere at the joint debt panel’s Capitol Hill hearing Tuesday.

Listen to audio of the interview here

Read the transcript:

JACKIE JUDD:  Good day, this is Health on the Hill. I’m Jackie Judd. The “super committee” on deficit reductions held a public hearing today.  The sole witness was Douglas Elmendorf, the director of the Congressional Budget Office. KHN senior correspondent Mary Agnes Carey was there.  Welcome, Mary Agnes.


JACKIE JUDD:  This is the committee’s second public hearing.  What was the mood in the room?

MARY AGNES CAREY:  It had a real feeling of getting down to business.  Members did make opening statements, but once Doug Elmendorf was done with his testimony, the questions and answers really got into some specifics about the baseline, inflation, entitlements, taxes – they really tried to dig into the nitty-gritty.  Not necessarily a lot of new ideas, but you got a sense that the committee was on its way. 

JACKIE JUDD:  Elmendorf was there to speak about the drivers of our nation’s debt.  What did he say?  What did you hear him say that might help the panel find its way to reduce spending by the large sum that they’re charged with?

MARY AGNES CAREY:  He basically said: You’ve got three choices, folks.  You either need to raise revenues above where they currently are in relationship to the GDP. You need to make changes to programs that benefit older Americans – here we’re talking about Medicare and Social Security.  He talked about the number of baby boomers that will be retiring and going into the system.  And he also said another choice is to reduce the role of the federal government – things like in defense, or unemployment compensation, or federal retirement.  He tried very consistently – he just kept explaining their options.  Different members of the panel would say, “Which way should we go?” or “How should we do that?”  And he’d say, “It’s simply my role here to give you the options.”  But he just tried to lay it out straight.

JACKIE JUDD:  And did any of the questions specifically about Medicare, maybe even Medicaid, from the senators and congressmen – did it provide any hint about their thinking and any movement in their thinking?

MARY AGNES CAREY:  Sen. Jon Kyl talked about: Why don’t we remove waste, fraud and abuse in Medicare and Medicaid?  He talked about: Why not, perhaps, add more auditors at the beginning of the payment process rather than the end?  He talked about how that could save tens of billions of dollars for those programs and for the federal government a year.  Max Baucus, who is a Democrat and head of the Finance Committee, also agreed he thought that would be a good idea.  Now, in the question and answers, Doug Elmendorf came back and said, “Now wait a minute, there is nothing in our analysis that has shown that this kind of activity will really raise a lot of money.”  He talked about how sometimes people make simple coding mistakes.  They correct them.  The claim is paid, and it’s not a recovery of waste, fraud and abuse.  So that was one area they talked a lot about.


The Democrats generally stuck to their talking points.  They are very concerned about protecting Medicare, protecting Medicaid.  They talk about how we’ve got to raise revenues – in their mind, raise taxes, something Republicans are very much opposed to.  And, of course, lots of Republicans talked about how they think entitlement spending should be reduced. 


So, again, we heard much of the familiar things from both sides, but that’s not so unusual this early in the process.


JACKIE JUDD:  Particularly in these public outings of the committee’s work.  Do you have any sense of what’s happing behind closed doors?


MARY AGNES CAREY:  I have a feeling that more will be happening behind closed doors.  One of the committee members made the observation that they have 77 days in which to produce their work.   And another complication is that we’re told today by CBO that the panel needs to produce its proposals so they can be scored – they need to have those proposals produced by the beginning of November in order for CBO to come back to it with estimates so they can produce a product by the end of November. 


So we’ll continue to have these public sessions.  Wouldn’t surprise me at all if there’s a lot of talking behind closed doors, talking with the administration as they try to come to a consensus.


JACKIE JUDD:  As you know, Mary Agnes, the panel in recent days has been encouraged to – the working phrase is “to go big” – to go beyond the $1.2 trillion over the next decade.  What are panel leaders saying about that?


MARY AGNES CAREY:  Chris Van Hollen, a House member, Democrat from Maryand, said that he wanted to go big, he wanted to hit the $4 trillion number.  Rob Portman, a Republican senator from Ohio, said afterwards that he would like them to go as big as they can. But let’s not forget all the factors that complicate even hitting that $1.2 trillion number, which is the  basic number they’ve got to hit to stop automatic cuts from coming in 2013:  Fundamental disagreements over entitlements, fundamental disagreements over taxes, and the pressure of the calendar.  The idea that you could make significant changes in the tax code or entitlement programs in a two month period seems phenomenally difficult for them to do. 


JACKIE JUDD:  Thank you so much, Mary Agnes Carey of Kaiser Health News.