House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) stepped out of his role as the heavy lifter in the background on Wednesday, calling on Congress to tackle long-dreaded entitlement reform, criticizing Congress for “a long history of inaction on long-term fiscal issues” and breaking with key Democrats by endorsing a commission to do so should Congress fail to act.
In a speech to the Bipartisan Policy Center at the St. Regis Hotel in Washington, Hoyer did not endorse any policy solutions but sounded the alarm over deficit and debt and called the challenge of fixing entitlement spending “a moral issue.”
As President Obama and the Democratic-led Congress work this year to pass an ambitious, expensive and deficit-funded agenda that seeks to reorder the energy and healthcare industries, Hoyer described the consequences of the status quo for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid in terms as stark and dire as any Republican would use. “By 2025 the debt held by the public will exceed the historical high of 109 percent of GDP, reached at the end of World War II. By then the money we spend on interest on that debt, along with the ‘Big Three’ entitlements, will equal 18.5 percent of GDP — and that spending will consume virtually all of our revenues,” Hoyer warned, adding: “We have a very short window of time in which to act.”
In the face of GOP criticism of Democrats as reckless deficit spenders, Hoyer said in an interview with The Hill on Tuesday that he is encouraging a discussion with voters about debt. “It is critical to engage the public in this. The public is very energized about debt and they know we have gone deeply into debt and they need to know the consequences of what happens if we do not act,” he said.
Though Hoyer has long had an interest in taking on this heretofore untouchable issue, his decision to take a lead on it now is notable. Hoyer keeps a relatively low profile as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) deferential deputy — he has stayed off of television and made sure to make news only rarely in his weekly briefings with reporters during the more than two years since he trounced Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), whom Pelosi supported in the race for majority leader.
In backing a commission for entitlement reform, Hoyer disagrees not only with Pelosi but with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and even Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen, Hoyer’s Maryland colleague in the House, all of whom prefer that the Congress undertake the effort by crafting its own legislation.
In the interview, Hoyer acknowledged that “the Speaker’s feeling is it is better to do it inside the Congress, and if we can do that, that’s great.” But he said, “My own view, as I told the Speaker, is an outside commission will be useful in getting to the point where options are laid out.” Hoyer added, “I think it is difficult for the Congress, politically, to deal with it. Therefore, having a commission, in this present context, could have a very useful role.”
Hoyer’s speech was also designed to call on Republicans to cooperate, and he concedes that such monumental reform couldn’t be accomplished without them. Hoyer maintains good relationships with the GOP and, according to a new survey by The Hill, was named one of the most bipartisan members of the House. Pelosi was named the most partisan.
An aide said Hoyer remains hopeful that some Republicans will depart from their nearly unanimous opposition to Democratic bills and engage on fiscal reform. “The only way you’re going to get past Republican objection is to reach out and give them opportunities,” he said. “You have to keep trying.”
Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.