“Accelerated Regular Order” — Could it Lead the Parties to a Grand Bargain?

Suzy Khimm reports on a proposal from the Bipartisan Policy Center that would establish a framework for reaching a grand bargain on deficit reduction in 2013. In short, the BPC proposes that Congress and the president in the lame duck session would agree to a procedural framework for guiding enactment of major spending and tax reforms in 2013. In enacting the framework, Congress and the president would also avert going over the fiscal cliff. In exchange, Congress and the president would make a small down payment on deficit reduction in the lame duck, and would authorize a legislative “backstop” of entitlement cuts and elimination of tax expenditures that would become law if Congress and the president failed in 2013 to enact tax and spending reforms.

The procedural elements of the BPC’s proposal bear some attention. The BPC’s not-quite-yet-a-catchphrase is “accelerated regular order.” Although it sounds like a nasty procedural disease, it’s akin to the fast-track procedures established in the Congressional Budget Act and in several other statutes. In short, the framework proposed by the BPC would instruct the relevant standing committees in 2013 to suggest to the chamber budget committees entitlement and tax reforms that would sum to $4 trillion dollars in spending cuts and new revenues (assuming extension of the Bush tax cuts). The House and Senate budget panels would each report a grand bargain bill for their chamber’s consideration that would be considered (without amendment) by simple majority vote after twenty hours of debate. Failure to meet the framework’s legislated deadlines would empower the executive branch to impose entitlement savings and to eliminate tax expenditures to meet the framework’s target.

Loyal Monkey Cage readers will recognize that the BPC proposal resembles in many ways the procedural solution adopted in the Deficit Control Act in August of 2011. But there are at least two procedural differences from the 2011 deficit deal. First, rather than a super committee, the BPC envisions “regular order,” meaning that the standing committees—not a special panel hand-selected by party-leaders—would devise the legislative package. Like the August deficit deal, the BPC proposal then offers procedural protection for the package by banning the Senate filibuster and preventing changes on the chamber floors (hence, an accelerated regular order). Second, rather than a meat-axe of sequestration that imposes only spending cuts, the BPC offers a “backstop,” giving what I take to be statutory authority to the executive branch to determine which tax expenditures to eliminate and which entitlement programs to cut back.

These differences from 2011 are subtle, but the BPC believes that they would improve the odds of success compared to the failed Super-committee plus sequestration plan. As a BPC staffer noted:

“One of the reasons the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction failed, in our view, was because only 12 lawmakers were setting policy for the entire Congress,” said Steve Bell, Senior Director of BPC’s Economic Policy Project. “The framework we propose today would both ensure an acceleration of regular budget order in the House and Senate, and it would involve all committees of relevant jurisdiction.”

This is an interesting argument worth considering. Still, I’m not so sure that accelerated regular order would improve the prospects for an agreement.

First, it strikes me that the real barrier to a grand bargain hasn’t been the Senate’s filibuster rule. The super committee was guaranteed a fast-track to passage, but that still didn’t motivate the parties to reach an agreement. The more relevant obstacle in 2011 and 2012 has been the bicameral chasm between a Republican House and a Democratic Senate. To be sure, eliminating the need for a sixty-vote cloture margin would smooth the way towards Senate passage. But we could easily imagine that the 60th senator (in 2013, perhaps a GOP senator like Lisa Murkowski) might be willing to sign onto a deal that would still be too moderate to secure the votes of House Republicans (assuming no change in party control of the two chambers). As we saw over the course of the 112th Congress, House passage required more than the consent of the House median (an ideologically moderate Republican) and more than the support of a majority of the GOP conference. The big deals in the 112th Congress only passed if they could attract the votes of roughly 90% of the House GOP conference. Expedited procedures can protect hard-fought compromises from being unraveled on the chamber floors but by themselves don’t seem sufficient to generate compromise in the first place.

Second, and related, I’m somewhat skeptical that the small size of the super committee precluded a viable agreement. By balancing parties and chambers, the group was (in theory) a microcosm of the full Congress. If true, then delegating to the super committee was more akin to delegating to a mini-Congress. Perhaps the BPC’s idea of allowing the standing committees to generate proposals would broaden legislators’ willingness to buy-in to a final agreement. More likely, I suspect that the framework would produce a House bill perched on the right and a Senate bill left of center (since the filibuster ban would reduce Democrats’ incentives to produce a bipartisan bill). That leaves the bicameral chasm still to be bridged, suggesting that accelerated regular order might not bring Congress all that much closer to a bipartisan agreement in 2013. Consent of party leaders remains critical for an agreement.

Third, the BPC proposal is unclear on the precise nature of the legislative backstop. But would either party agree in advance to the framework if they didn’t know whose ox would be gored by the administration when it exercised its power to reform entitlements and eliminate tax expenditures? Perhaps delegating such authority to the executive branch would allow legislators to avoid voters’ blame, making them more likely to vote for the framework. (That said, it’s somewhat ironic that the BPC’s embrace of accelerated regular order flows from its desire to broaden the set of legislators whose fingerprints are visible on the grand bargain.) Regardless, the prospects for cuts in entitlement programs could lead both parties to favor kicking the can down the road again before it actually explodes.

Fast-track procedures have a decent track record in facilitating congressional action. (Steve Smith and I have extolled their virtues elsewhere.) But the most successful of these episodes involve narrow policy areas (such as closing obsolete military bases) on which substantial bipartisan agreement on a preferred policy outcome is already in place. Expecting a procedural device to do the hard work of securing bipartisan agreement may be asking too much of Congress’s procedural tool kit in a period of divided and split party control.