Congress could avoid the trigger by creating . . . another trigger

at 09:00 AM ET, 11/17/2011

The supercommittee’s prospects for success are looking dimmer by the day. But one of the few remaining options would be an all-too-common congressional tactic: passing the buck and deferring the hardest, most complex decisions until later. Legally speaking, there’s nothing stopping the supercommittee from tasking yet another group of lawmakers to carry out the parts of deficit reduction that are hardest to reach agreement on — and crafting another trigger to hold Congress to its promise.


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There’s a fair amount of bipartisan consensus that a sweeping overhaul of the tax code would be preferable — and politically easier — than a piecemeal approach. But legislators, on the whole, came to the reasonable conclusion that the supercommittee’s Nov. 23 deadline didn’t give them enough time to craft such a proposal. Now supercommittee members from both parties are suggesting that the supercommittee could delegate comprehensive tax reform to another congressional committee, while still using those future revenues to count toward the group’s $1.2 trillion budget-cut target.

“Yes, there could be a two-step process that would hopefully give us pro-growth tax reform — which, by the way, every other bipartisan effort that has said that some revenues have to be raised in this method,” Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Tex.) said Sunday on CNN.

Some Democrats on the committee have endorsed a similar approach: Their latest outline would essentially leave it to another group of legislators to work out a “fast-track” procedure for tax reform, while counting the future savings toward meeting the supercommittee’s current mandate. They would be require to meet certain benchmarks — corporate tax reform, a 35 percent cap on individual tax rates, etc .— and raise at least $650 billion in revenue.

But Democrats recognize that for such an alternative to work — and fulfill its pledge to provide real revenue — it would need its own kind of enforcement mechanism. So supercommittee Democrats have proposed yet another trigger: Congress would have a little more than a year to work out tax reform according to the supercommittee’s instructions. But if it fails to enact such legislation by Jan. 1, 2013, a new trigger would take effect, raising revenue by $650 billion by limiting itemized deductions for wealthier Americans and applying a $325 “deficit reduction charge” on income tax liability before credit could be applied.

Another option that has been floated would make the entitlement cuts contingent on tax reform. Under this proposal, the changes to entitlement programs, which are important to Republicans, have to be “triggered” by a successful tax reform process.

There are some major obstacles that would have to be overcome for this alternative to work, however. Even if supercommittee members agreed to pursue this strategy, they’d have to agree upon a basic outline for future tax reform and a strong, meaningful trigger mechanism would actually compel Congress to carry it out. So this might not get around any of the political difficulties the supercommittee is facing now anyway.

What’s more, crafting a second trigger would make Congress guilty yet again of kicking the can down the road — continuing the cycle of deferring tough choices that has helped drive up the federal deficit in the first place. The debt-ceiling deal created the trigger-backed supercommittee. The supercommittee could create another trigger . . . ad infinitum.

And finally, it’s not clear how seriously Republicans take the trigger that already exists in law. Many of them, from Hensarling to Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), have openly talked about changing it. So Democrats will also have to be convinced that Republicans will stick to whatever trigger is devised.

 
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