Debt supercommittee: Frequently Asked Questions

at 12:00 PM ET, 11/13/2011

Over the next two weeks, you’ll be hearing a lot about the supercommittee. So it’s a good time for a refresher on what the committee is meant to do, how it will carry out its work, and what the possible outcomes could be.

1. What is the supercommittee?

The Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction—better known as the “supercommittee”—was created as part of a law that Congress passed in early August in exchange for raising the federal debt-ceiling. The committee, which is composed of 12 members of Congress, must come up with a plan by late November to reduce the deficit by $1.2 to $1.5 trillion within the next ten years, beginning in 2013. The supercommittee’s cuts, combined with $900 billion in separate cuts agreed to in the debt-ceiling deal, will be accompanied by a debt-ceiling increase by the same amount.


Rep. Jeb Hensarling ( R-Texas), left, and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), right, co-chairs of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction. (SOURCE: AP )

A simple majority of the supercommittee must approve a plan by Nov. 23. But before the members can vote on any plan, they must receive an estimate of its budgetary impact from the Congressional Budget Office by midnight of Nov. 21. The CBO will need a few days to a week to score any proposal, so the supercommittee must budget time for that, too. If the supercommittee is close to coming to an agreement but is running out of time, Congress can vote to amend the debt-ceiling deal and grant the members an extension.

4. Who’s on the supercommittee?

The 12-member group is half Republicans and half Democrats, with an equal number of legislators from the House and the Senate. The co-chairs are Democratic Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and GOP Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Tx.), both members of their respective party’s leadership. The other Democratic members are: Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.) and Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.). The other Republican members are: Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.), Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio).

5. What happens if the supercommittee fails to come up with a plan?

The trigger will take effect beginning in 2013, enacting $1.2 trillion in across-the-board cuts: 50 percent from defense spending and 50 percent from domestic spending, excluding Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare benefits, and low-income entitlement programs.

6. What happens if they do produce a plan?

The plan must then pass both houses of Congress, which must vote on it by Dec. 23. Unlike regular bills, the plan is protected from the filibuster and cannot be amended or otherwise changed. The president then needs to sign the plan into law. If the supercommittee passes a plan, but it fails to pass Congress or the president’s desk by Jan.15, then the automatic trigger goes into effect.

6. What are the biggest differences separating Republicans and Democrats on the committee?

The biggest impasse is over generating revenue. Republicans say they’re unwilling to raise taxes as part of the plan. But Democrats say they’re unwilling to consider significant cuts to entitlement programs unless Republicans consider significant revenue increases. In early November, Republicans offered to eliminate some tax loopholes and exemptions in exchange for permanently extending the Bush tax cuts, but Democrats rejected the proposal on the grounds that the Bush tax cuts, at $3.7 trillion, are worth much more than the $300 billion in revenues the Republicans were offering.

7. Could Congress undo the spending cuts mandated by the supercommittee, or from the trigger?

Yes. Congress could reverse cuts from either the supercommittee or the trigger, which won’t begin to take effect until 2013. But it would have to pass a law to do so that would also have to receive the president’s signature.

8. Will the supercommittee solve the deficit problem?

Even if supercommittee passes a plan into law, it will depend on the size of the deal. There’s no limit on how much the supercommittee can cut from the deficit. But if the group can only come up with the minimum $1.2 trillion in deficit cuts, then even when the $900 billion from the debt deal is added in, the consensus will generally be that more deficit reduction over the next decade will be necessary. President Obama’s own proposed plan would reduce the deficit by about $3.6 trillion within that timeframe, for instance, and the Bowles-Simpson fiscal commission recommended about $4 trillion in deficit reduction. And if the economic fundamentals don’t improve significantly in the coming years, the required amount of deficit reduction will be even larger than that.

 
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