The Washington Post

Congress putting its faith in committee

After weeks, months, of bitter feuding, Congress has finally agreed on who cannot be trusted to solve the country’s complicated fiscal problems: The U.S. Congress. All 535 members. And Congress has a solution — a special committee.

Both Republicans and Democrats have proposed drumming up a committee of 12 legislators — handpicked by both parties — to deal with the most complicated issues involved in a likely debt-ceiling compromise. It will be up to this “super committee” to complete the epic task of cutting more than $1 trillion in spending from the federal budget.

According to the latest plans, committee members would only have a few months to complete the job, and when — if — they approve a final set of cuts, the rest of Congress would be given a simple choice: take them or leave them.

Sounds simple, right? But there is a problem with this idea: Similar “super” working-groups have been tried before — and they haven’t always delivered super results. In fact, one of the few things that will make the committee’s job easier is that a lot of the ground has already been covered.

“I know people roll their eyes and say, ‘Oh, another commission. Really?’” Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) said on the Senate floor last week. But she said this one could deliver results: “If we have a finite end date and have the opportunity to make more real cuts, it is worth another chance.”

But this may be not so much a chance than another gamble.

Approach is a gamble

“They tend not to work,” said Sarah Binder, a historian of Congress at George Washington University. The problem, Binder said, is that the factors that keep the whole Congress from solving hard problems usually reappear in a smaller committee.

“The same conflict that leads to the creation of these groups,” Binder said, “gets replicated in those groups.”

The two parties have both acknowledged that this super-committee process could fail. In fact, one of the main points of contention has been what to do if the committee itself can’t agree — or if Congress rejects the committee’s ideas.

But Republicans and Democrats have touted the committee as the best option left. Plans call for the committee members to be chosen by the leaders of each party in both the House and Senate. Those 12 would be required to do what Congress as a whole could not accomplish during months of bickering: find ways to cut more than $1 trillion from the federal budget deficit.

That, more or less, is the task that Congress has been working on for months now — since the Republican landslide in the fall election shifted Washington’s attention to budget cuts. The 12 legislators on the super committee would be required to succeed where their colleagues have failed. And do it by Nov. 23.

After that, their recommendations would be presented to the rest of Congress. The two chambers would be allowed only a vote — no amendments or other changes.

The model, legislators have said, is the Base Realignment and Closure process, in which an outside commission recommends a list of military base closures to Congress and legislators have only the power to approve or reject the entire list.

Trying to pawn off tough decisions on a blue-ribbon commission or a working group or some kind of study committee has a long history in Washington.

In the early 1980s, a commission with members from both parties was assigned to find ways to restructure Social Security. It met for a year but produced few results: Democrats insisted on new taxes; Republicans wanted to cut benefits.

Then, when it seemed as if the commission would fail, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) tapped Sen. Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) on the shoulder at the Capitol. “Are we going to let this commission die without giving it one more try?” he said.

Mixed record

After that, leaders of the two parties worked out a solution that brought major changes to Social Security, melding tax increases with benefit cuts. Instead of circumventing Washington’s usual politics, the commission had been saved by them.

A decade later, another presidential commission was charged with overhauling large federal benefit programs. Divided by disputes between the two parties, it worked for 10 months and failed to agree on a plan.

“I just wonder, when the pressure’s off, if commissions like that can actually work,” said former congressman Michael N. Castle (R-Del.), who worked on the Clinton-era commission. He said it’s difficult for these commissions to overcome partisan divides without a crisis looming. “My sense is that, you’ve got to strike while the iron is hot,” he said.

This year, it seems likely that the proposed commission’s members would face determined lobbying from groups hoping to influence their decisions. The Strengthen Social Security Campaign, for instance, plans to target the members to dissuade them from cutting benefits.

“It’s a cowardly way to make public policy that’s going to affect every American,” said Eric Kingson, a professor at Syracuse University and co-chairman of the campaign. “When changes are made, they ought to be made through the normal legislative process — not through a commission that enables members of Congress to hide from very hard choices.”

FreedomWorks, an advocacy group allied with the tea party movement, is planning to create its own debt commission, and to hold meetings to underline tea party demands for spending cuts.

“We’re going to dog them,” said a spokesman for the group, Adam Brandon. “Wherever they’re going with their commission, we’re going to have our own.”

David A. Fahrenthold covers Congress for the Washington Post. He has been at the Post since 2000, and previously covered (in order) the D.C. police, New England, and the environment.

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