Just when the country had finally learned what a “debt ceiling” is, Congress is already on to a new crisis--with a whole new vocabulary of obscure wonk words.
To follow the saga of the “supercommittee,” which has just nine days left before its deadline for cutting the nation’s deficit, it may help to know these few words of Congress-ese. On Capitol Hill, “sequester” is a noun, a “trigger” is something that pulls you, and the word for “war” has 27 letters.
Luckily, we at 2Chambers are native speakers.
SUPERCOMMITTEE: A group of six Republicans and six Democrats, who were given less than four months to solve a problem that had frustrated thousands of Republicans and Democrats for dozens of years. Their task is to cut $1.2 trillion from the country’s budget deficit. That could mean raising taxes (which Republicans don’t want to do) or cutting Social Security and Medicare (which Democrats don’t want to do).
The supercommittee is called “super” because it has unusual powers. If it agrees on a plan, that plan would be rushed toward a vote in the House and Senate, without amendments or filibusters to slow it down. But that’s a very big “if.” With a deadline looming on Nov. 23, the group still seems nowhere near a deal.
SEQUESTER: This is what happens if Nov. 23 comes, and the supercommittee can’t agree.
The 12 members of the panel will then be “sequestered” in an abandoned mine tunnel in Western Pennsylvania with legal pads, a case of Diet Cokes and a pallet of Beanee Weenees. Guards with tasers will prevent them from leaving until they have a solution.
Okay, that last part is not true. But the “sequester” is a real thing, and it really will come to pass if the supercommittee can’t agree. What will be “sequestered” is money, however, not lawmakers.
If the supercommittee does not come up with a plan that can pass Congress, then $1.2 trillion will automatically be cut from agency budgets--including a large chunk from the Pentagon’s budget--in January 2013. The hope was that these cuts would be so large, and so politically painful, that Congress would do anything to avert them. Even compromise with each other.
TRIGGER: This is another word for the sequester--a buzzword for a buzzword. This name stems from the fact that the sequester is “triggered” if the supercommittee fails.
Already, some lawmakers have begun talking about how to “de-trigger,” or undo the automatic cuts in defense spending that would follow a failure to make a deal. “I hope the supercommittee can do its job, but we can’t just live on hope around here,” Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) said recently. “If the committee fails, I am not going to allow the triggers to be pulled that would shoot the Defense Department in the head.”
ENTITLEMENTS: Another word for some federal programs that pay out taxpayer money, like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. What sets these programs apart is that the government is bound to give benefits to anybody who is old enough, sick enough or poor enough to qualify. These folks are “entitled” to the money. No matter how big the overall bill gets (farm subsidies are also included in this definition).
And, as the population ages, it will get very big indeed. Earlier this year, the Congressional Budget Office said that spending on these programs could jump from 10 percent to a 16 percent of gross domestic product in 25 years.
So why not cut “entitlement” spending? That could mean cutting benefits, or limiting who can get them (by, for instance, raising the age of eligibility for Medicare from 65 to 67). And that could mean angering millions of people who have been paying into these programs for years.
REVENUE: One of the strangest words in this entire debate. On Capitol Hill, it is typically understood to mean a mixture of taxes and income from selling government property -- and some focused imagination.
The tax piece is the easiest to understand. If the government brings in more money in taxes, then it would not have to cut spending as deeply. For that reason, Democrats have called for tax increases--especially on the rich-- as part of any supercommittee deal. Republicans on the committee resisted, but last week they offered a package that included $300 billion in tax increases (as part of a larger deal that would simplify the tax code and lower overall rates).
The supercommittee could also call for raising money by selling things the government owns. That could include federal land in the West, or auctioning off “spectrum”--the right to use certain wireless frequencies controlled by the government.
But, on Capitol Hill, raising “revenue” can also mean cutting taxes, and trusting that this will cause the economy to grow. That, in turn, would mean that more people earn more money. Which would mean they would pay more money in taxes. In that chain-reaction scenario, lowering tax rates could actually mean increasing the amount of tax money that comes in overall. Estimating all this is referred to as “dynamic scoring” because -- Oh, no.
I see you’ve nodded off.
Anyway, some lawmakers have called for this kind of projected “revenue” to be counted toward the supercommittee’s goal. The problem, for some critics, is that the money they’re counting doesn’t technically exist.
OVERSEAS CONTINGENCY OPERATIONS: This is a $640 toilet seat made of words — a true wonder of Washington’s ability to bend both English and reality.
It mostly means...war. Including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They’re both winding down, which means the United States will reduce the money it spends to fight them. That means the government will have billions of dollars more than it would have had in a hypothetical world where the country was still fighting both wars.
Now, supercommittee members are discussing how to use this war savings. One idea is to extend unemployment benefits or extend a temporary payroll tax cut. But lawmakers on both sides have already derided the idea of “using” this money--which, again, is theoretical money that the country would have spent on wars it is no longer fighting-- as an accounting gimmick.
On Capitol Hill, this debate means that “Overseas Contingency Operations” are a hot topic for debate. When staffers want to abbreviate this 27-letter phrase, they don’t say “war,”the centuries-old English word that means essentially the same thing. They say “Oco.”
Have other supercommittee buzzwords you’d like us to translate? Please post them in the comments section.