Congress will hand the sticky details to a bipartisan committee of 12
WASHINGTON - After weeks, months, of bitter feuding, Congress has finally agreed on who cannot be trusted to solve the country’s complicated fiscal problems: The US 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 $2.8 trillion in spending from the federal budget.
According to the agreement reached yesterday, committee members would have only until the end of November to complete the job, and when they approve a final set of cuts, the rest of Congress would be given a simple choice: take them or leave them.
The first step in the process would take place immediately: raising the debt limit by nearly $1 trillion and cutting spending by a slightly larger amount over a decade.
That would be followed by creation of the super committee to recommend an additional $1.8 trillion or more in deficit cuts, targeting benefit programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security or overhauling the tax code.
Those deficit cuts would allow a second increase in the debt limit, which would be needed by early next year.
If the committee failed to reach its $1.8 trillion target or if Congress failed to approve its recommendations by the end of 2011, lawmakers would then have to vote on a proposed balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution.
It sounds simple, but there is a problem with this idea: Similar super committees have been tried before, and they have not 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?’ ’’ said Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, Republican of Texas, 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.
“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.’’
Both parties have 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 still touted the committee as the best option left. Plans call for the committee members to be chosen by the leaders of each party in the House and Senate. Those 12 would be required to do what Congress could not accomplish during months of bickering.
Cutting the federal deficit is a task that Congress has been working on for months now - since the Republican landslide in last fall’s 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.
After Nov. 23, its 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 relegate tough decisions on a blue-ribbon commission or a working group or some kind of study committee has a long history in Washington.
It seems likely that the proposed commission’s members would face determined lobbying from groups determined 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 cochairman 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.’’