Sidestepping the filibuster won’t solve the fiscal cliff

September 19, 2012

In theory, it sounds like a great solution: Get Congress to "fast-track" a big fiscal package that would allow individual members and committees to work out the details of a budget deal, but prohibit the filibuster by mandating what's known as "regular order" to avoid gridlock.


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)

"In the Senate, you stand up and yell 'regular order' when you want senators to behave," former Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) said Monday afternoon at a summit of like-minded deficit hawks. "Everybody understands."

As co-chair of the Bipartisan Policy Center's deficit commission, Domenici has already released a widely praised plan. But he's now advocating for procedural changes to help that grand bargain happen. "What we are going to be talking about is developing a process called accelerated regular order," he said.

First, Congress would have to pass a law to enable fast-tracked legislation that would suspend the filibuster. Then, rather than have party leaders settle on the details ahead of time and presenting it before the rank-and-file, the separate parts of the deal would work their way through the individual committees, with time limits on debating legislation to expedite the process, according to Domenici.

The fast-track procedure has "been around for decades" and routinely been used to pass legislation, says Sarah Binder, a George Washington University professor and expert on congressional procedure. "In theory, it makes it easy to work a package through—it's going to reduce some of the supermajority veto points."

The problem is, Congress would first have to pass a law to change congressional procedures for a budget deal—and neither party is likely to do so unless they've already reached some kind of consensus about the basic outlines of a deal. After all, the debt-ceiling deal had already built in some fast-track procedures: Had the supercommittee come to an agreement, it would have been subjected to a simple up or down vote before Congress. But they couldn't come to the basic agreements required to trigger the fast-track process.

Oddly, there was little mention of congressional dysfunction and deadlock at Monday's panel, which featured all of the names that have become synonymous with deficit reduction in Washington: Domenici and Alice Rivlin, Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles. Instead, all of them repeated the usual mantras about adopting a balanced approach to deficit reduction, chiding Washington to get serious about reforming entitlements, broadening the base and lowering rates. "Raising for taxes for everyone, and making big senseless cuts would be really stupid policy," Rivlin asserted.

In fact, you'd be hard-pressed to find a major party leader who'd disagree: President Obama's fiscal cliff alternative would make Medicare cuts (though only to providers). Paul Ryan, and Mitt Romney, have proposed to close loopholes and eliminate tax breaks (though they're reluctant to specify which ones, and they refuse to consider raising new revenues).

But the lip service to Washington's reigning deficit hawks hasn't brought Congress any closer to a grand bargain. And fast-tracking the sausage-making process on the Hill won't resolve the parties' fundamental fiscal disagreements.

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