Your Inside Guide Into The Super Committee

With less than two weeks remaining for members of the Super Committee to come to some agreement on how to reduce the deficit, it is important for engaged voters to understand just how this unique committee is supposed to work. Here’s a look at some of the broad mechanics of the Super Committee

The Nitty-Gritty

The Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, since dubbed the “Super Committee,” was created by the Budget Control Act of 2011, the end result of the debt ceiling crisis that gripped the public’s attention in July and August.

The committee, consisting of three Republicans and three Democrats from both the House and the Senate, was tasked with delivering at least $1.2 trillion in deficit reductions over a 10-year period by November 23. The proposal would then go to Congress, with explicit protections from amendments, filibusters, and all other procedural tricks which are intended to block legislation. The bill would receive straight up-down votes in both houses of Congress.

Should the committee fail to deliver a recommendation in time, a system of sequesters (also known as “triggers”) will attach to the next debt ceiling raise that would force mandatory cuts of $1.2 trillion across-the-board, split evenly between security and non-security programs. The cuts would apply to both mandatory and discretionary spending in fiscal years stretching from 2013 to 2021. Should the committee fail to propose the full $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction, the mandatory sequesters would bridge the difference.

The committee has less than two weeks to approve a deficit reduction plan and send it to Congress. Both houses of Congress must then vote on the proposal before December 23. Should either house of Congress fail to pass the Super Committee’s proposal, the mandatory sequesters would come into full effect on January 1, 2013.

Why it Might Work

We live in a world of incentives and politics is no exception. The reason the Super Committee was created in the first place is because both parties felt that hanging the anvil of mandatory cuts over the heads of Super Committee members was enough to ensure some agreement.

All members of the Super Committee have large, military-related constituencies. From the massive Army, Navy, and Air Force bases to the myriad of Lockheed, Raytheon, and Boeing plants spread throughout the constituent states, the members of the Super Committee are keenly aware of the need to avoid broad military cuts that may threaten tens of thousands of jobs and constituents in their home states. In signing the debt ceiling agreement, Congress hoped that this military pressure would help bring Democrats and Republicans to the table concerning their sacred cows. So far, it seems to be working as committee members push towards an agreement. This is no doubt bolstered by the fact that 22 former staffers to members of the Super Committee now work as defense-industry lobbyists, helping the industry donate over $1 million to Super Committee members’ campaigns in the last two election cycles.

The Committee itself has given reason for hope. Committee co-chairs Senator Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Rep.  Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) have repeatedly stated that everything is on the table, from entitlement reform to tax increases. Also, much of the committee’s work has been conducted in private, which suggests that talks have not yet deteriorated and legitimate negotiations are underway.

Finally, the task isn’t novel. A number of expert groups have already addressed this exact issue, from the Simpson-Bowles Commission to the Domenici-Rivilin Report, and all have found similar but distinct ways of attaining deficit reductions much higher than the $1.2 trillion ordered. The Super Committee need not re-invent the wheel (nor do they have time to do so) so the task of Super Committee members is to haggle over which elements from which commissions they like best.

Why it Might Fail

While mandatory cuts triggered by the Super Committee’s failure to produce an agreement are fantastic in theory, they are hardly the be-all, end-all of forcing functions. The mandatory sequesters don’t kick in until January 1, 2013, giving Congress over a year to change their minds and repeal sequesters.

Already, we have seen Republicans openly state that they will attempt to circumvent the mandatory sequester in order to protect the Pentagon’s $660 billion budget. Efforts like these are likely to become more prevalent if the Super Committee fails. Fundamentally, Congress could repeal the entirety of the triggered cuts before they come into effect, with the net result being no deficit reduction and no mandatory cuts. Further, the new Congress sworn in on January 3, 2013 could put the brakes on a majority of the cuts implemented through full or selective repeal. The availability of this back-peddling option greatly decreases the incentives for Super Committee members to come to an agreement.

The public signs of rifts between the ideological wings of the Super Committee have been less than encouraging as the deadline approaches. Republicans and Democrats unveiled competing plans, an indication that with less than two weeks to go, the two camps are still miles apart on fundamental issues. Most notably, the Republican plan includes no net tax increases something both Democrats and the president have said must be included in the final bargain. Although the Republican plan does include the closing of certain tax loopholes, Democrats have balked at the refusal to put revenue increases in the final package. 

Moreover, there are two post-committee hurdles that need to be cleared. First, both houses of Congress must pass the proposal as worded. This would make any plan that included tax increases difficult to move through the Republican-controlled House and vice-versa for a no-tax plan in the Democrat-controlled Senate.

Second, the law must be signed by the president. While it is unlikely that President Barack Obama will reject a deficit reduction effort that passes a bi-partisan Congress in an election year, a plan that would reduce the deficit exclusively through spending cuts to entitlement and social safety net programs may have trouble surviving the veto pen.

Interestingly, should the president veto the proposal, the triggers would not kick in, leaving the United States with no deficit reduction plan and no mandatory cuts. In agreeing to this clause, congressional Republicans assumed that were the president to veto a bi-partisan piece of legislation, it could be used against him in the 2012 election.

The immediate next steps are two-fold. First, both plans need to be scored by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), meaning that the non-partisan CBO will look at the numbers proposed by the Super Committee and see if they match when evaluated under the rules set forth on government budgeting and savings calculations. This is likely going on as we speak now that we’ve seen two plans put forth. Assuming there are no big “funny math” surprises, then all that is left is for the two sides to come to some sort of compromise.  It only takes one individual to vote across party lines to send a proposal to Congress. Whether it will be a Democratic, Republican, or a hybrid-option that wins the final fight remains to be seen.

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