Congressional Super Committees: How Super Are They in Resolving the Budget Deficit Debate?

As the debt default clock counts down, competing Boehner and Reid proposals each include a provision for a congressional super committee or “Super Congress”—a bicameral, bipartisan committee (6 Democrats and 6 Republicans) that would be empowered (Reid) or required (Boehner) to produce a plan to reduce the deficit by at least $1.8 trillion over 10 years. In the Boehner proposal, if 7 of the 12 legislators voted in favor of the plan, the measure would be guaranteed an up-or-down vote (no amendment, no filibuster) on each chamber floor. Enactment of the proposal would allow the president to request a $1.5 trillion increase in the debt ceiling (subject to disapproval in both chambers—  which the president would surely veto and count on congressional Democrats to sustain).

Given the importance to the credit rating agencies that Congress demonstrate a credible commitment to addressing the nation’s long-term deficit problem, the politics of the proposed joint committees merit some attention.

First, some reporters have questioned the idea of the Super Congress by noting that such a creature “isn’t mentioned anywhere in the Constitution, but would be granted extraordinary new powers.” For sure, joint committees—particularly those empowered to report and secure a vote on the chamber floors—are relatively rare. But the concept of delegating authority to a committee, commission, or the executive branch—and then guaranteeing chamber votes on the resulting proposals or decisions—has ample precedent. Expedited procedures have been a critical tool for decades when legislators have sought ways to credibly commit to a measure that results from delegated authority. (Steve Smith and I date these statutory limits on debate at least back to 1939). Legislators use expedited procedures to stack the deck in favor of a measure’s passage and enactment. Key examples  include the Congressional Budget Act’s delegation to the House and Senate Budget Committees to produce a congressional budget resolution and reconciliation bills and to protect them from a filibuster in the Senate. Congress in the past has also created “fast-tracks” for certain trade agreements negotiated by the president: Congress pre-commits to an up-or-down vote (no amendment, no filibuster) both to strengthen the president’s hand in negotiating the agreements and to bolster their chance of passage.

Second, the decision to couple delegation and fast-track typically reflects a strong degree of concurrence across the parties on policy ends and means. Legislators in the 1980s were willing to delegate military base closing decisions to a Defense Department commission—and to allow those decisions to go into effect unless Congress mustered a majority to block them—because of broad congressional agreement about the need to close and realign bases. As Kenneth Mayer argued (ungated) in Legislative Studies Quarterly in 1995, Congress was willing to bind its hands in advance because the delegated authority was limited to a narrow jurisdiction; in cases of broad authority where views about appropriate means are contested, Congress is far less likely to pre-commit.

Third, Congress’s design of the base closing process highlights a critical choice legislators must make when empowering a super committee. As advocated in the 1980s by Dick Armey (then a Republican member of the House, now the engine behind the Tea Party Express), the  commission’s recommendations went into effect (assuming the president signed off) unless Congress voted to disapprove the plan. In contrast, Boehner’s Joint Committee proposal requires a vote of Congress to approve the plan. Granted, we can see why legislators (particularly Republicans) might be reluctant to require disapproval rather than approval:  Given that Joint Committee Democrats would likely make substantial revenues the price for their votes to report a deficit reduction plan, many Republicans will be reluctant to trust a joint committee. The leverage of conservative Republicans over the final shape of any deal is greatest if passage of the plan is contingent on the approval of both chambers and the president. In contrast, if the plan is implemented unless Congress votes to disapprove the plan (and then votes to override a presidential veto of the disapproval resolution), the power of House Republicans is significantly diminished. Opposition of a single chamber is insufficient to reject a measure under a disapproval resolution (as discovered by TARP opponents who failed to muster a Senate majority to block release of the second round of TARP funds in 2009).

But keep in mind that congressional negotiators this week have another task master to please. Congress has to avoid a breach of the debt ceiling next week and convince Standard & Poor’s that the government has a credible solution to address its long term deficit problem. If policymakers fail to convince the rating agencies, the country faces a downgrade of its triple-A debt rating—with the widespread rise in borrowing costs (and potential financial havoc) that would ensue. Requiring legislators to approve the super committee’s plan sustains current market uncertainty about whether Congress has the capacity to make tough choices. Limiting legislators’ role to rejecting the plan would bolster the chances that an effective policy solution to the nation’s long-term fiscal mess could be achieved. Including a disapproval resolution in the super committee mechanics would be an important signal to the rating agencies that the U.S. still deserves a top grade assessment of its credit worthiness.