Will The Budget 'Supercommittee' Accomplish Anything?

Originally published on August 6, 2011 5:27 pm

This Aug. 16, 12 lawmakers — six Democrats and six Republicans from both houses of Congress — will become among the most influential figures in Washington.

The lawmakers will be part of a bipartisan joint committee formed under the recent debt-ceiling deal, the result of nearly three months of unending gridlock on Capitol Hill.

Their task: to put forth a plan for government spending cuts of up to $1.5 trillion over the next 10 years. That would be hard enough, George Washington University political science professor Sarah Binder tells NPR's David Greene, without an additional step.

"Then the package is essentially guaranteed an up-or-down on the House and Senate floor," she says. "That's very unusual for most legislative committees."

So — will it work?


One reason to be optimistic about the committee, Binder says, is its use of a "trigger," a political term of art that basically means major changes kick in automatically if lawmakers fail to act.

It's kind of like Congress is holding a gun to its own head. But in this case that gun fires hundreds of billions of dollars in unpopular across-the-board spending cuts.

"Congress binds its hands in all sorts of ways," Binder says. "Of course, it's possible that if the committee stalemates, you may yet come to the president and the speaker of the House sitting down together."

But that would mean Congress takes the unlikely step of dismantling the trigger itself, she adds.

"It's not impossible to put aside the committee, but it would require an agreement that the Congress and the president are going to do this differently."

That means the committee is likely in it for the long haul. But it will move forward, Binder says, with more power than most of its historical predecessors.

'Nice Four-Color Charts'

Take 1994's Kerrey-Danforth Commission on Entitlement Reform, named for Sens. Bob Kerrey (D-NE) and John Danforth (R-MO).

"Like several others in that period, it was really set up out of frustration that members couldn't come up with a broader deficit-reduction agreement," Binder says.

Sound familiar?

The difference, Binder says, is that Kerrey-Danforth was created by executive order of President Clinton.

"It didn't have what the supercommittee has. It didn't have legislative authority to report bills and have them voted on. In that sense, the deck is stacked a little bit in its favor."

Unlike, she adds, last year's Simpson-Bowles Commission, set up by President Obama, which needed a two-thirds "supermajority" vote from commission members to send any legislation to Congress.

For commissions, a supermajority is usually a death sentence. Simpson-Bowles resulted in no significant cuts. Neither did Kerrey-Danforth, back in 1994. In fact, by 1997, Congress had created another commission to tackle the problem a second time.

Speaking to NPR about that second effort three years later, Danforth said, "1994 was a total of waste of time. We came up with a nice report and nice four-color charts, but that was it."

You guessed it: The 1997 effort, known as the Breaux-Thomas Commission, also had a supermajority requirement. Not much was accomplished.

But the rules of this year's joint committee, Binder says, are different.

"You can't filibuster to keep it off the floor. You can't amend it. And you only need 51 votes to pass it out of the Senate, which really is quite remarkable. It's going to disarm filibusters from the right and filibusters from the left. That is highly unusual."

The More Things Change ...

The commissions of the '90s, Binder cautions, were a different time. For one thing, she says, Kerrey and Danforth were centrist members of the Senate.

"Look around the Senate today — where are those centrists? The parties weren't terribly close in the 1990s, but they've moved even further away since then," she says.

Another difference: By 1997, the economy was booming. There wasn't a sense of urgency to make substantial budget or entitlement cuts.

"The stakes are pretty high today," Binder says.

Has a group like the supercommittee ever been successful?

Yes, Binder says. She points to the Base Closing and Realignment Commissions of the 1980s and 1990s, which have served as a successful model for closing or realigning bases that were considered obsolete or duplicative — not an easy task when military bases are a coveted presence in a congressional leader's district.

"The genius of that solution," Binder says, was to delegate the decision to a defense commission" — one made up not of politically minded lawmakers but of members of the Defense Department.

And the kicker: Congress could only vote against the entire list. Otherwise, no affirmative vote was required. The cuts went into effect automatically.

The joint committee, she says, faces a harder challenge to passing significant cuts. Both houses of Congress and the president must vote on its recommendations, as with any other law.

Given the impasse of the past several months, Binder says, "I think it's going to be pretty tough."

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A downgrade of American's credit rating is unprecedented, but the political gridlock that helped bring it on, not such an old story.


BOB KERREY: We function better when there's a crisis. So maybe we should just wait. Let's wait 20 years. Let's wait 15 years.

GREENE: This tape, it's from 1994, then Democratic Senator Bob Kerrey.


KERREY: Mañana satisfies us. My hope is that at some point, that mañana is not satisfactory.

GREENE: As you can hear, Kerrey back then was frustrated with a special commission he was working on, one appointed to come up with a plan for big cuts in government spending. It was called the Kerrey-Danforth Commission. And three years later, then Republican Senator John Danforth, Kerrey's partner in the effort, called it a total waste of time.


JOHN DANFORTH: I mean, it was a (unintelligible) year as far as the people who were involved in it. We came up with a nice report and nice four-color charts, but that was it. But...

GREENE: You probably know what we're getting at here. Last week, as part of the debt ceiling deal, Congress created a committee that will once again try to come up with a plan for big cuts to the federal budget. That plan might be the best shot the U.S. has at getting its credit rating upgraded again.

But unlike past congressional commissions, lawmakers call this one a supercommittee. George Washington University political scientist Sarah Binder says there's a reason why.

SARAH BINDER: That is, if they can agree by majority vote to report out a package of savings, then the package is essentially guaranteed an up or down vote on the House and Senate floors. And that is highly unusual.

GREENE: So that's one important difference. Most congressional commissions aren't actually writing laws. They're writing recommendations, ones that Congress is free to ignore. This time, if Congress ignores the committee's recommendations and doesn't pass them, by early next year, by law, major cuts will be made automatically to a lot of popular government programs.

BINDER: Exactly.

GREENE: And one more thing, political scientist Sarah Binder says...

BINDER: Sometimes, we look at all these commissions and committees and say, well, they don't have a great track record.

GREENE: It's all about context.

BINDER: Senator Kerrey's point about a crisis - I mean, early 1990s, right, we do have the economy starting to grow, so turn around there. And as he said, look, without a crisis, perhaps it's much harder for us to reach agreement.

GREENE: Agreement in the coming months might hinge on how big a crisis Washington believes it's staring at today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.