Deficit hawks are dreaming that a "grand bargain" on deficit reduction will come out of the fiscal cliff standoff. But how could you possibly get a sweeping plan to reform spending, taxes, and entitlement through a paralyzed Congress that has already failed so many times to come to an agreement? The Bipartisan Policy Center thinks it has the answer.
The group has laid out a framework for deficit reduction that's basically in line with a multi-step approach that's being floated on Capitol Hill right now: It would avoid the fiscal cliff by requiring Congress to pass a $4 trillion, comprehensive deficit plan that would go through the Hill committees, with an "automatic backstop" of cuts if Congress fails to come up with a plan and an upfront down payment.
But the framework also has a critical piece that legislators have not expressed much interest in so far. It would require Congress to follow what's called "accelerated regular order": It would suspend the use of the filibuster on the big deficit-reduction legislation, strictly limiting the time for debate. It would also let the Congressional committees work on the individual pieces of the legislation — rather than having it handed down from the party leadership. But for any individual committee that failed to move forward with its relevant piece, the Budget Committees would be allowed to step in and intervene. Former Sen. Pete Domenici, who co-chairs the BPC's debt task force, suggested a similar approach last month.
Finally, in case Congress failed to come up with a deal, or fell short of the $4 trillion target, the executive branch would be required "to eliminate any shortfall" to achieve the same amount of deficit reduction. Under that backstop, "half of the savings would come from reductions to all mandatory and entitlement programs (with the exception of Social Security) and half from reductions in all federal tax expenditures."
In theory, this kind of process would clear away at least one big obstacle that's paralyzed Congress. But it's also hard to see how Congress would agree to it in the first place. Senate Republicans have vehemently defended the filibuster as protecting their rights in the minority, and should Democrats lose the Senate, their tune might change as well. And whatever party loses the White House in November isn't likely to be happy about the executive branch being empowered to design a backstop.
But the framework at least lays out what those dreaming of a "grand bargain" will be lobbying for over the next few weeks — and helps explains not just what they want, but how they'd propose making it happen within a politically dysfunctional environment.