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The Super Committee: Personnel Is Policy

The parties' choices for super committee membership reflect different strategies to cut the deficit.

by
Peter Roff

Bio

August 18, 2011 - 12:26 am

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich may have hit on something in last week’s Iowa debate when he suggested the right move going forward is for Congress to scrap the so-called “super committee” that is supposed to come up with recommendations for an additional $1.5 trillion in spending cuts before President Barack Obama can get his second bite of the debt ceiling apple.

Calling it “about as a dumb an idea as Washington has come up with in my lifetime,” Gingrich said during the GOP debate in Ames, Iowa, that

The idea that 523 senators and congressmen are going to sit around for four months while 12 brilliant people, mostly picked for political reasons, are going to sit in some room and brilliantly come up with a trillion dollars, or force us to choose between gutting our military and accepting a tax increase, is irrational.

“What they ought to do is scrap the committee right now, recognize it’s a dumb idea, go back to regular legislative business, assign every subcommittee the task of finding savings,” Gingrich said. “Do it out in the open through regular legislative order and get rid of this secret phony business.”

There’s a lot of sentiment for his idea. Nonetheless, the committee is going to go forward with its work and there seems little that can be done to stop it.  This is fine with some people who argue that it should at least be given a chance to produce a package of cuts that will make a real impact on the national debt.

Part of the concern about whether or not the committee can achieve its mandate comes from the fact that, by design, it is going to encroach on the prerogatives of every other committee in Congress.

“You’ve got to believe that every major committee is nervous that it’s core work is just going to be snatched away from it if they manage to reach some sort of grand deal,” Norm Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, told Politico:

That’s probably true of even Finance and Ways and Means even though their chairs are on the committee. They may be consulted, but they’re not going to be able to shape things the way they normally shape things.

The up or down nature of the vote on the super committee’s final report may ultimately negate those concerns, especially as they are tied to the next increase in the debt ceiling. Members who feel their authority to make decisions about program-specific spending will face enough political pressure that they will almost inevitably be forced to set their personal concerns aside — never mind that they can always go back into the process and address them later in a future budget.

The real problem with the committee seems to be its constitution, which seems designed to produce a deal centering on the lower common denominator.

The six Republicans on the committee — Senate Republican Whip Jon Kyl, Senators Pat Toomey and Rob Portman, Energy & Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, and House Conference Chairman Jeb Hensarling — seem a strong enough group, with middling to strong records in support of an agenda to spark economic growth.  The Democrats on the committee, on the other hand, are largely less than stellar, with a long record of support for entitlements and a concern for politics that seems to override their passion for federal budgeting issues.

Take Senator Patty Murray, the Democratic co-chairman of the committee. At the same time that she is trying to find $1.5 trillion in spending cuts, she is busy raising money for the 2012 election as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Most political forecasters expect the GOP to take control of the Senate in the next election, regardless of the outcome of the presidential race. This means Murray must face the conflict, every day, between coming up with real reforms that might help the country but hurt her party and the need to win as many Democratic campaigns as possible.

The other Democrats on the super committee — with the exception of Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus — do not have a reputation for being budget hawks either. Sen. John F. Kerry and U.S. Reps. Xavier Becerra and James Clyburn are partisans through and through who no doubt believe their mission is to protect vital Democratic constituencies from the brunt of the coming cuts. Maryland’s Chris Van Hollen, the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, is still better known as a recent — and successful — chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, putting him in the same boat where partisan politics are concerned as Murray.

The biggest danger is that, rather than try to do something simple and straightforward, the so-called “super committee” will continue to try to come up with some kind of grand bargain that ends up being too clever by half and only makes problems worse. Already there are rumors about efforts to do something to the corporate tax code that would eliminate deductions but also lower rates — something that is sorely needed but is best done out in the open through the full committee process, not behind closed doors. Indeed the whole process, as more than one member of Congress has already suggested, ought to be out in the open. Transparency is the enemy of business as usual and it ought to be very much in evidence as the work of the “super committee’ begins.

Peter Roff is a contributing editor at U.S. News & World Report. A former senior political writer for United Press International, he is currently a senior fellow at the Institute for Liberty and at Let Freedom Ring, a non-partisan public policy organization.
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