Resolved: Supercommittees and debt commissions don’t work

at 02:20 PM ET, 03/29/2012

The Bowles-Simpson debt reduction commission’s proposed budget went down in flames in the House on Wednesday night, failing by an overwhelming vote of 382 to 38.

And in doing so, it became just the latest bipartisan creation of Congress to crash and burn when it comes time to implement its proposals.

Think about the congressional “supercommittee,” which after the debt ceiling deal of last August was charged with crafting an additional $1.2 trillion in savings. Its effort ended in partisan gridlock, with no votes or even recommendations sent to the whole Congress.
Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, co-chairmen of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, and Alice Rivlin and Pete Domenici, co-chairmen of the Bipartisan Policy Center's Debt Reduction Task Force. (REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)

Further back, there was the Grace Commission in the 1980s, crafted for much the same reason as Bowles-Simpson and the congressional supercommittee. It went nowhere.

So why doesn’t this kind of thing work? In an era in which Congress raves about bipartisanship, the two commissions designed to craft a bipartisan agreement on fiscal matters have yet to produce any kind of consensus or results.

In the end, they’re failing for the very same reason regular legislation doesn’t pass: members just aren’t ready to stomach voting for them.

The New York Times noted at the time of the most recent supercommittee’s creation:

In the last seven decades, Washington has assembled more than a dozen blue-ribbon panels to grapple with fiscal problems. These include the Hoover Commission in 1947-49, the Grace Commission in 1982-84 and the Simpson-Bowles commission, created by President Obama last year.
The panels were often devised as a way to give political cover to policy makers to make unpopular changes. But in most cases, Congress ignored the proposals or deferred action.

Such is the case with Simpson-Bowles now, with the nearly year-and-a-half-old recommendations still languishing in Congress.

Experts on the legislative process point to the fact that members of Congress don’t like to turn over their prerogatives to groups outside the normal legislative process. After all, government is all about power, and giving away that power risks giving it away for good and making yourself less relevant.

But in today’s polarized political environment, it’s as much or more about the fact that it’s just so difficult to find common ground on such proposals — whether through the normal process or otherwise. Congress still has to vote on whatever proposals result, and in a day and age when one vote (read: Obama’s health care bill) can arguably cost you reelection or even the majority, that’s a big hurdle.

And that goes double when it comes to budget-cutting — perhaps the hairiest of all issues.

Bowles-Simpson, for instance, has plenty for both sides to hate. And it failed in the House for many of the same reasons Congress hasn’t been able to come to an agreement on debt reduction through its normal legislative process.

As the Post’s Ezra Klein notes, the bill includes trillions in tax increases and defense cuts (for Republicans to hate) and deep entitlement cuts (for Democrats to hate).

“Austerity is a political loser,” said budget analyst Dan Clifton. “So why would anyone want to get in front of this train before the election?

Democratic strategist Jim Manley said that even for a plan crafted by outsiders, members are still not willing to allow their names to be attached to potentially harmful aspects of the bipartisan deal.

“Despite all the rhetoric, the political will is just not there right now for something like that,” said Manley, a former top aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). “These are votes with real consequences. For most members, if the supercommittee recommendations ever made it to the floor, they would have been most difficult votes that they would have had to cast.”

Republicans note that Obama’s budget has also hit a roadblock in Congress, earning zero votes in the House when Republicans forced a vote on it Wednesday. (Democrats note the tactic was a stunt designed to embarrass Democrats.)

Billy Piper, a former chief of staff to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), said members just aren’t prepared to stick their necks out — even for one vote — given the price many Democrats paid for votes like Obama’s health care bill.

“I guess I have grown cynical, but I am not sure it is all that surprising,” Piper said. “Here is a president who used all of his political capital to force through a health care bill that cost his party the House and is on the verge of being overturned by the Supreme Court. Is it any wonder he can’t find any supporters for a budget that adds another $1 trillion to our debt?”

The same goes for bipartisan deals like Bowles-Simpson and the supercommittee.

Even though members don’t have to go through the thorny political process of crafting an agreement, they still have to get over the political mountain that is voting for it.

Only when things reach true crisis proportions do members start taking politically courageous votes, said former top GOP Senate aide Eric Ueland, and it’s not clear that debt reduction has reached that point yet.

“What one party knows is a crisis needing addressing right now may be dismissed by the other party as baloney,” said Ueland, who was chief of staff to former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.). “What one chamber may want done now might be seen by the other chamber as something they can get to down the line; what one end of Pennsylvania Avenue believes must be handled right away might not be seen that way at the other end.

“When our government is finally hard up against reality and needs to act, ultimately it does — quite often through the regular order that Congress already has.”

 
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