Already, the smart money in Washington is betting that the congressional super committee created by this week’s debt-ceiling deal to develop a plan for taming the long-term federal deficit will stalemate along party lines and fail.
No one has won much money lately betting against failure in Washington. But each party has powerful incentives to seize the opportunity this committee offers to set the nation on a sustainable fiscal path through paired entitlement and tax reform. “There is real potential for a win-win agreement for both sides,” said one senior White House official closely involved in the negotiations.
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That potential exists because the super committee represents the one ray of light in the sordid debt-ceiling struggle. The battle set an ominous precedent. Since 1940, Congress has raised the debt ceiling almost 100 times. It’s fair to say that at each of those moments, a majority of senators or House members had at least one important beef with the president. But never before had that majority been as willing as House Republicans were this year to risk the nation’s credit rating to press their demands.
Although the creation of the super committee doesn’t justify this quantum leap in political combat, it does open a window for progress. Under the deal President Obama signed on Tuesday, the top four Republican and Democratic leaders in Congress will each appoint three members to a special committee that must recommend by November 23 at least $1.5 trillion in additional deficit reduction through 2021. If a majority of committee members endorse a proposal, that plan is guaranteed a floor vote in both chambers by December 23 without amendment or Senate filibuster.
Those rules provide this group with vastly more leverage to stabilize the nation’s finances than any previous commission has possessed. The procedures effectively preempt a minority veto—either through the Senate filibuster or the informal House rule that legislation reaches the floor only if a “majority of the majority” party supports it. Because a majority proposal from the committee could be passed with any combination of Republican and Democratic votes, it provides a unique opportunity for the center of both parties to impose a balanced solution on the ideological vanguard of left and right.
The first indications aren’t encouraging that Congress will seize this opportunity. House Speaker John Boehner has ruled out appointing to the super committee anyone who might consider raising taxes; Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has been almost as Shermanesque. Democratic leaders haven’t signaled as much rigidity, but unless Republicans on the panel are willing to raise revenue, the Democratic appointees won’t entertain entitlement reform. That would produce stalemate—and a fallback to the blunderbuss $1.2 trillion in defense and domestic spending cuts that the deal established as a backstop.
The wagering in Washington is that each party will find stalemate safer than rattling their base by accepting more taxes or entitlement cuts. And that wager might be right. However, there are two good reasons for each party to reconsider that calculation. One is policy. The other is politics.
The political incentive for bold action is self-preservation. It turns out that Americans don’t care much for the spectacle of their leaders negotiating at gunpoint. In the United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll released this week, the share of adults who said their member of Congress deserved reelection was lower than it was before the 2006 and 2010 landslides that flipped control of the House. Congressional approval ratings also are well below their meager levels in 2006 and 2010. Likewise, Obama’s approval ratings in some surveys this week reached their nadir.
No one can predict how such all-points discontent will affect 2012. But like Florida homeowners boarding up before a hurricane, both parties may find it prudent to fortify their position with a serious accomplishment such as a balanced long-term deal on the deficit.
The policy reason for avoiding stalemate is that the outlines of a plan that could win majority congressional support are clear. Three bipartisan efforts—the Simpson-Bowles and Domenici-Rivlin commissions, and the “Gang of Six” Senate process—all offered blueprints that linked entitlement reform with the closing of enough tax loopholes to lower tax rates and reduce the deficit. Even the Boehner-Obama talks covered similar ground. “Every serious effort has had the same frame,” says Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., who helped launch the Gang of Six.
The biggest risk for the super committee is that Boehner and McConnell will ensure deadlock by appointing only members unalterably opposed to raising taxes. Stalemate on the super committee, however, would deny Republicans the heat shield of Obama signing serious entitlement reform (such as raising the Medicare eligibility age) and expose them to the danger that he will veto an extension of the Bush tax cuts when they expire on December 31, 2012, even if he loses the election. All of this may not be enough to persuade congressional GOP leaders to appoint committee members open to a big compromise that lastingly defangs the deficit threat. But it should be.
This article appears in the August 6, 2011 edition of National Journal Magazine.
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