Congress has returned for a short session to pass last-minute business before November, but most members are focused on the upcoming election. Facing a looming fiscal cliff with no long-term debt deal in sight, Congress must act to keep the government running before returning to the campaign trail.
Can members of Congress reach a compromise and avoid budget sequestration before 2013? What are the implications if lawmakers fail to act? On September 12, Brookings expert Sarah Binder took your questions and comments in a live web chat moderated by Vivyan Tran of POLITICO.
12:29 Vivyan Tran: Welcome everyone, let's get started.
12:30 Sarah Binder: Thanks for having me. Let's get to your questions!
12:30 Comment From Joshua: What votes can we expect to surface during this mini-session? Anything significant besides voting on the budget?
12:32 Sarah Binder: We shouldn't expect very many votes on anything consequential beyond the stopgap bill. The theme of both parties is to finish the stop gap 6 month spending bill and to get out of town -- quickly!
12:32 Comment From Anonymous: Simple question, probably a complicated answer. What's up with Congress?! Why can't they do anything? And have they always been this useless?
12:35 Sarah Binder: Your frustrations are shared by many. The 112th Congress -- 2011 and 2012 -- does seem to be a remarkably stubborn and ineffective legislative body. There's very little will to compromise and very little political incentive to do this -- particularly in the run up to a presidential election with a struggling economy. Neither party wants to accept a half-loaf compromise, preferring to hold out for a full loaf more favorable to their party after the elections. And there are historically low levels of moderates in either party to force compromise. (Not to say that there haven't been earlier periods of polarization and gridlock!)
12:35 Comment From Marie: What deadlines do we have associated with the fiscal cliff? When do we default and do you think we'll avoid it?
12:37 Sarah Binder: The key deadline for all the expiring taxes (including Bush tax cuts and payroll taxes and an assortment of middle class tax credits favored by Obama administration) is Dec. 31 2012. And the sequestration ($110 billion in spending cuts) would occur in the first week in Jan.
I don't think we'll see a grand bargain in the lame duck -- certainly not if Romney wins the White House (in which case GOP would hold out until Romney took office). I suspect that neither party, though, wants to go over the fiscal cliff -- and certainly neither party wants to raise taxes on Christmas. So, some sort of kicking the can down the road to buy time is probably what we'll see to push the tough votes and choices into the new year.
12:38 Comment From Tom: It seems like Congress is getting increasingly worse at passing budgets on time. Is this just a perception we have b/c of increased gridlock, or did they used to be better about it? If so - why have they had so much trouble with it the past few years?
12:42 Sarah Binder: There are a lot of moving parts here. First, on budget resolutions in particular, yes, things look pretty bad. We have had years in the past in which Congress has been unable or unwilling to do a budget resolution, but such years have been relatively few and far between. But on annual spending bills, yes, Congress has performed increasingly poorly in recent years. In fact, the last time Congress and the president finished all 12 (then, it was 13!) spending bills on time was back in the 1990s. When the parties are polarized and particularly when control is split by the parties between the chambers, it's really tough to get the parties to agree on spending. This has been exacerbated by living in a world in which pressures for spending cuts have mounted. On top of this, keep in mind that Senate rules require 60 votes if a minority doesn't want to see a spending bill passed. Senate majorities have really had a tough time living in a world in which the minority doesn’t like the spending bills preferred by the party. Also, spending bills attract policy riders, which conservative House members have been aggressively attaching to spending bills. That decreases the Senate's interest in passing the bills, and the White House discourages Senate action as well!
12:42 Comment From Arlington: If we do avoid sequestration, what kind of compromise are we likely to see? Who will give in, and on what?
12:43 Sarah Binder: This is a tough one to predict. Democrats don't seem eager to embrace the GOP push to exempt defense spending. And I doubt that they would agree to such a plan. I could see a pushing back of the deadline until a greater compromise is reached -- if possible.
12:43 Comment From Bryan: What kind of budget cuts will we see if we don't avoid sequestration?
12:45 Sarah Binder: The sequestration cuts equally from domestic and military spending, with some exemptions on the domestic side. That was the price paid by both parties if they couldn't agree on a supercommittee plan to reduce the deficit last fall. Those domestic cuts would affect a wide array of government services -- environmental protection, national parks, etc., etc.
12:45 Comment From JR: What kind of effects can expect to see on the economy if Congress fails to reach a budget deal and sequestration becomes a reality?
12:46 Sarah Binder: CBO and others predict the possibility that going over the fiscal cliff could push the fragile US economy back into a recession. International relations scholars talk about "wars of choice." This would be a "recession of choice." I'm hard pressed to think that legislators would actually fail to take the steps to avert at least some of the cliff fall.
12:47 Comment From Vanessa: Looking forward to the next Congress -- do you think gridlock would improve? What circumstances would help?
12:49 Sarah Binder: Great question. Unified party control of Congress and the White House is not a magic bullet. But it sure would help! Seriously, much more gets done of consequence when a president can rely on party control of both chambers -- particularly as his/her Senate majority grows. Certainly we have examples of productive periods of divided party control. But in a period of polarized parties, divided government seems more often a recipe for gridlock than a recipe for holding hands and jumping off the cliff together (sharing blame for tough choices).
12:49 Comment From Guest: What are the implications of the stop gap once Congress is back in town next time around?
12:50 Sarah Binder: The stop gap spending bills buys the Congress (and the next president) 6 months before they have to act again to fund the government. I would not be surprised to see in 6 months another 6 month spending bill to finish the spending needs of the govt. for the fiscal year. Keep in mind that the 10 year deficit control act (last summer's budget deal) lays out spending limits for the coming decade. That somewhat reduces the incentive to pass separate spending bills.
12:50 Comment From User: Can you speak generally to why gridlock has become such a problem in Congress? Is it all due to procedural hurdles, or is it directly related to increased polarization in society writ large?
12:54 Sarah Binder: Very good and tough question. Certainly polarization of the legislative parties contributes to the difficulty of reaching agreement in Washington -- particularly given that supermajorities are needed to overcome filibusters and vetoes. But elites in Washington are probably far more polarized than the voters (and non-voters) who they represent. In other words, some institutional aspects of Congress tend to amplify polarization, making it harder still to reach agreement. Also, keep in mind that divided government historically limits Congress's ability to solve problems. And the differences between the House and Senate are particularly stark this year. Bicameral obstacles also play a role in driving deadlock, even when the same party controls both chambers! (Think 1993 and 1994 when House and Senate democrats disagreed on quite a lot. Or 1995 and 1996 when Bob Dole said he'd never heard of the Contract with America written by Gingrich and House GOP!)
12:54 Comment From Billy: Why do Senators and Congressmen continue to throw around comments like "The U.S. will default..." when we as a country are a currency issuer and therefore cannot default? Is anyone seriously discussing Bowles-Simpson as a legitimate deficit reducing mechanism, and does it have any chance of passing?
12:55 Sarah Binder: I would not be surprised if something *like* Simpson-Bowles became the basis for a future compromise. Emphasis on "future," however. Until GOP accedes to raise revenues and Dems agree to more entitlement cuts, hard to see the parties coming to the table on a bargain.
12:55 Comment From Bret: Will any deal be worked out between just Obama and Boehner, or will rank and file members/Committees be involved?
12:57 Sarah Binder: The often neglected story of recent Congresses is how little sway rank and file legislators have in crafting legislative agreements. To be sure, large coalitions can make life tough for leaders (conservative GOP flank and Boehner last July come to mind), but ultimately, leaders are negotiating agreements-- Reid, Boehner, Obama (and sometimes McConnell).
12:57 Comment From Jen: When we think of gridlock, we tend to think of opposing sides refusing to compromise for political reasons. But is it the case that we just have more "extreme" members of Congress these days that have absurd, unbending ideas about one issue?
12:59 Sarah Binder: The trend since the mid 1980s has been the disappearance of the political middle. There are just very few districts or states that send moderate/centrist legislators to Washington. That makes it tough to reach agreement when American political institutions require supermajorities to get much done. How to you build a large coalition if there's no one in the middle to forge the link between parties? Large ideological gulf between the parties is hard to bridge.
1:00 Vivyan Tran: Thanks for the questions everyone. See you next week!