Some of the biggest challenges facing the supercommittee are not political. They’re not philosophical debates over the best way to reduce the deficit. Rather, what could doom a deal may be the boring business of logistics: how, exactly, to put together a $1.2 trillion deficit reduction package on a warp-speed, 10-week timeline. In particular, there seem to be four big logistical obstacles that stand between the supercommittee and an eventual deficit reduction deal:
Timeline: At the Tuesday supercommittee hearing, Congressional Budget Office Director Douglas Elmendorf fielded multiple questions from members anxious about how long it would take to score an eventual bill. Elemendorf estimated “a few weeks.” “We need time to do our jobs right, so we’re not just pulling out numbers,” he said.
That moves the deadline for legislation up to six weeks from now, so the CBO can score the bill by Nov. 23. Even before that deadline was mentioned, observers were already skeptical about what could be achieved in 10 weeks. “From concept to final product, it’s 10 weeks,” says Dean Rosen, a partner at lobbying firm Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti and former adviser to then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.). “They simply don’t have time when you think about what their task is going to be ... to do a lot of freelancing and come up with a whole lot of creative ideas.”
Baseline: As Ezra Klein noted in Wednesday’s Wonkbook, the panel has not yet set a baseline, the amount of spending it will use as the flat floor to determine whether $1.2 trillion has been saved. There’s a lot of leeway in what the baseline looks like: it could assume all or some of the Bush tax cuts continue, for example — or, it could assume they all expire, which would make it tougher for the committee to raise taxes and see the policy count against the deficit. The baseline may assume that Congress authorizes more money to keep Medicare doctor payments stable, or it may not. That hasn’t happened yet, but likely will by year’s end. Add up all policies like that, as Elmendorf did at Tuesday’s hearing, and you’re looking at about a $5.2 trillion difference in where the committee starts from.
Personal Relationships: Many of the big, bipartisan deals that Congress has struck have grown out of robust relationships between Democratic and Republican legislators. On the supercommittee, those relationships don’t exist. “The personalities are really important,” says Rosen. “This isn’t like Senator Hatch and Senator Kennedy, who had a 20-year relationship and then had a thorny issue to sit down and solve. Or even the Gang of Six, who saw each other on the [Senate] floor every day. This is distinctly different.” The 12 supercommittee members don’t have those relationships: co-chairs Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) met for the first time last week.
Presidential politics: Even if the panel can hammer out some policies they agree on, there will be a political obstacle: why would the Republicans want to hand President Obama a big victory? The Republican primaries will kick off shortly after the supercommittee’s work wraps up. That is probably the exact time they don’t want to give the president a big, new deficit reduction plan to point to.