"If you don't fundamentally change that relationship of the citizen to the federal government during retirement, you can't pull us out of a fiscal spiral," Franc says. "The consequence is to basically tell the next generation: 'You're screwed.' "
The challenges facing the super-committee include: a tight timeline, a polarized Congress, a public that is fed up with overspending but not eager to give up aid that helps them personally, and financial markets that will raise interest rates for everyone if they think Washington isn't doing enough about the problem.
Six Democrats, six Republicans, one big job
The members of the committee were named this week by congressional leaders. Representing the Democrats will be Patty Murray, Wash., Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, Mont., and John Kerry, Mass., in the Senate, and James Clyburn, S.C., Xavier Becerra, Calif., and Chris Van Hollen, Md., in the House. Republican committee members are Sens. Jon Kyl, Ariz., Rob Portman, Ohio, and Pat Toomey, Pa., and in the House Jeb Hensarling, Texas, Ways and Means Committee Chairman David Camp, Mich., and Fred Upton, Mich.
The super-committee was created in a last-minute deal to break the political impasse that almost led to a historic default when Congress had trouble raising the debt ceiling. The deal promised cuts over the next 10 years of more than $900 billion in domestic and defense programs, followed by $1.5 trillion to be determined by the new committee.
For Congress that's a tall order. But financial markets have been watching Washington closely, especially after Standard & Poor's downgraded the country's credit rating because of the political squabbling over how to solve the long-term debt problem.
The super-committee takes on a challenge that a host of others have failed at this year, including two bipartisan deficit commissions, a "gang of six" bipartisan senators, and President Obama in his negotiations with House Speaker John Boehner.
"There are a lot of raw nerves around Washington right now. They've been fighting all year about the budget," says Bixby. "I imagine they're all pretty sick of each other. For all the fighting, the situation has gotten worse and worse."
A tight timetable with a big agenda
The super-committee must complete its recommended reductions in November, followed by votes in the House and Senate just before Christmas. Congress must vote on the proposal as is; amendments and changes will not be permitted. If nothing passes, an automatic cut of $1.2 trillion will hit defense budgets, other spending programs and Medicare. The Medicare impact would be a 2 percent cut in payments to providers, including the reimbursement rate for doctors. Advocates for older people say that could lead to doctors refusing to accept new Medicare patients.