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Cheaper by the dozen?

Politics | A 12-member congressional 'supercommittee' is about to try to accomplish what the rest of Washington has failed to do-rein in out-of-control deficits

Issue: "Finding their way," Oct. 8, 2011

WASHINGTON-This summer's parade of comic book hero movies may have ended, but comic book-like Herculean feats may be moving to Washington. It is here that lawmakers have asked 12 of their own to resolve what has been a mostly fruitless year-long dispute about how to solve the nation's fiscal crisis.

The pressure is on for this committee, created by the summer legislation that approved an increase in the debt ceiling, to live up to its billing as super. "How difficult is this challenge?" asks Dan Crippen, the head of the National Governors Association and a former Congressional Budget Office director. "Well, on a scale of one to 10, probably a nine-assuming that Dante's Inferno is a 10."

As the panel begins its work, WORLD provides a cheat sheet of key questions and answers:

What is the supercommittee's mandate?

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The committee has until Nov. 23 to find at least $1.5 trillion in deficit cuts over the next decade. That gives the 12-member committee, made up of six House members and six senators, about 10 weeks to draft legislation to accomplish savings that Congress has failed to achieve all year.

"One could rename this committee ... the Dirty Jobs Committee," said Jim Gould, a former chief tax counsel with the Senate Finance Committee. "Somebody's got to do the dirty job of deficit reduction, and they've delegated this to this committee. The members shouldn't be too thankful to be on this committee."

A simple majority of seven panel members is needed for final approval. With membership split evenly between Republicans and Democrats, only one panel member has to switch sides for the plan to be advanced to the full Congress. The House and the Senate then have until Dec. 23 to vote on the plan. Lawmakers would not be able to amend the proposal, and senators would not be able to subject it to a filibuster.

Is slicing off $1.5 trillion from the deficit through 2021 enough?

No. Despite all the attention this committee will get, those savings amount to "peanuts, as we used to say in the grandstand," said Alan Simpson, a former Wyoming senator and the Republican co-chair of last year's Bowles-Simpson fiscal commission.

Cutting $1.5 trillion would slice projected federal spending over the next decade by no more than 4 percent. Debt as a percentage of gross domestic product would continue its increase-from 67 percent today to more than 75 percent in 10 years, according to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.

Lawmakers from both parties argue that something bigger must be done. "If you just do what you've been legislated to do, it's not going to cut the mustard," said Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore.

Others are concerned that panel members may be tempted to go after the low-hanging fruit as opposed to making fundamental changes. "If you just turn it into something that looks like across-the-board cuts and doesn't change the architecture of a broken welfare state, the thing springs back to life the minute the money shows up," says Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a former director of the Congressional Budget Office.

What is each side's position?

Think second verse, same as the first. Both sides are fairly entrenched in the positions they've held all year. Conservatives argue for shrinking the size of government and tackling the main drivers of the nation's debt, namely entitlements. Liberals continue to "believe revenues have to be on the table if we're going to solve our deficit and debt problems," according to White House spokesman Jay Carney. But House Speaker John Boehner said that tax increases "are off the table. It is a very simple equation. Tax increases destroy jobs."

Republicans have signaled a willingness to pursue an overhaul to the tax code. Such reform would include lower rates for both individuals and corporations combined with the closing of some tax loopholes.

What happens if the supercommittee fails?

If the panel cannot get at least seven votes or Congress votes down the recommendations, the defeat would trigger automatic across-the-board spending cuts equal to $1.2 trillion. The military would be especially hard hit, shouldering about half those cuts. Meanwhile, some of the biggest entitlement programs would be excluded or see limited cuts.

This "trigger mechanism" is designed to be the stick that forces the panel to act. But there is reason to doubt that this threat of automatic cuts will work as an incentive. These cuts conveniently do not go into effect until 2013, after next year's election. And even then many believe that the cuts would never happen. Congress, instead, would simply abandon them. "All Congress has to do to override this bill's spending restraints in the future is pass another law that overrides them," said Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa.

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