Up Front

Web Chat: The Super Committee and Its Prospects for Success

Sarah A. Binder

On September 14, Sarah Binder answered your questions in a live web chat, moderated by POLITICO, on how the new super committee will work and its chances for success in achieving the goal of $1.5 trillion in deficit reductions.

The transcript of this chat follows.

12:28 Erika Lovley: Okay, let’s get started.

12:28 [Comment From Gary: ] Have there been any similar super committees in the past?

12:31 Sarah Binder: Although there have been special committees and commissions established in the past, this new joint committee stands out from its predecessors. The procedural protections afforded to a bill produced by the joint committee are unusual. They guarantee expedited up or down votes on the committee’s recommendations and set a strict time line for the two chambers to consider the proposals.

12:31 [Comment From maryann: ] Do you think the super committee will be able to meet the thanksgiving deadline?

12:32 Sarah Binder: This is the million dollar (make that the “multiple trillion dollar”) question for Congress watchers like myself this fall. The deadline is tight, but there’s enormous pressure on the committee to show that the two parties can actually reach agreement on critical issues of the nation’s long term fiscal health.

12:32 [Comment From Wes (DC): ] What’s the composition of the committee, who decided on it, and what’s the significance?

12:34 Sarah Binder: The deficit law enacted in August established the selection process for the joint committee—3 democrats from each chamber, 3 GOP from each chamber. The most important part of the selection process, however, is that the legislators were selected by their party leaders. THis means that the committee’s work will be carefully watched by party leaders on both sides of the aisle and both chambers, and it’s unlikely that the committee would produce a bill that didn’t meet or match the goals of the parties.

12:34 [Comment From Geoff: ] Does the deficit reduction approved by Congress actually bind future Congresses in any way, or could Congress, in 2013, for example, take actions that would essentially reverse this year’s deficit reduction?

12:36 Sarah Binder: Nothing is forever in Congress. Even though the deficit law spelled out a set of triggers (defense and domestic cuts) in case Congress fails to enact at least $1.2 trillion of savings, Congress and the president could pass a new law that defuses the trigger. Or any other element of the new law. Of course, because something is technically feasible does not necessarily mean that it is *politically* feasible.

12:37 [Comment From Lindsey: ] Some people compare this to the Base Closing Commission, which they argue has had some success. Is this an apt comparison, and do you agree the BRACC was successful?

12:39 Sarah Binder: In some ways, BRACC is the closest comparison to the current joint committee. It was an (external) commission empowered to come up with base closings and its recommendations were procedurally protected to make their decisions more likely to go into effect. But there are lots of differences. Most important are two. First, the base closing commission’s recommendations went into law UNLESS Congress voted to reject the recommendations. For the joint committee recommendations to go into effect, Congress and the president have to act. And that could be hard. Second, the base closing commission had a relatively narrow jurisdiction. That’s not the case of the super committee: Their jurisdiction is enormous!

12:40 [Comment From Mark, Greenbelt: ] I’ve heard some criticism that the leaders picked political loyalists rather than the best and most committed budget experts in Congress to the panel, and that increases the chances for political gridlock and failure. Do you agree?

12:41 Sarah Binder: It’s certainly the case that party leaders chose carefully. Mavericks need not have applied! That said, party leaders can’t command their rank and file to follow their lead. And so yes, you do have some real budget experts on the committee and I expect their own views about policy to make a difference— but not outside the bounds of what’s acceptable to their leaders, most likely.

12:41 [Comment From Ron: ] Why does Congress keep delegating its own responsibilities to various committees and commissions? Is it to delay tough decisions until after the next election?

12:43 Sarah Binder: That’s a good question. In large part, it’s an indictment of the Congress and its ability to incubate policy ideas and to legislate through its committee system. But the committee system has faltered because (in part) the parties are so polarized ideologically and in partisan terms over what the key problems are and what the best solutions are. You can’t expect a committee system to survive the polarization that pervades Congress. So Congress ends up delegating to special groups in hopes that they can break logjams. And yes, also to kick the can down the road.

12:43 [Comment From Nick P (Chicago): ] How will Obama’s ‘Jobs Plan’ affect the efficacy of their budget reduction abilities?

12:45 Sarah Binder: This is another great unknown about the super committee. The head of CBO at yesterday’s super committee hearing said it best: The committee can package immediate spending and tax cuts with long term deficit reduction. In other words, the committee makes a good venue for acting on the jobs package AND paying for it, if that’s what it takes to pass muster with both parties. But yes, as you suggest, that raises the ante for the level of savings to be found by the committee.

12:45 [Comment From Alyson B.: ] I’ve heard some members of the super committee say they want to achieve even more deficit reduction than is mandated. Is that a possibility?

12:46 Sarah Binder: Technically possible, yes. The sky’s the limit! The members of the committee could once again pursue a “grand bargain”—tax reform, entitlement reform, revenues and cuts—but it’s hard to see how this committee evades all of the hurdles to the grand bargain that we saw this summer.

12:47 [Comment From Ernesto A.: ] Given the painful, even ridiculous conduct of the debt limit debate, why should expect success from this committee? I understand the up-or-down vote is preferable to the filibuster in the Senate, but isn’t the House the real problem?

12:48 Sarah Binder: You are right to question the likelihood of success, in that the House remains a hurdle for action. That said, the deficit law makes it impossible for the House Republican leadership to refuse to call up the joint committee bill. That gives the joint committee some leg up. That said, if the GOP members of the committee are unlikely to buck the preferences of their party leaders, then yes, the preferences of the House Republican majority still matter an awful lot.

12:49 [Comment From Marie Bowden: ] The mess with the debt ceiling crashed the markets and almost put us into a double dip recession and really shook consumer confidence, but it seems some of the real ideologues on the Hill just don’t care. Do you think Congress learned a lesson from what happened, or are we still at risk of destroying our own economy?

12:51 Sarah Binder: I think legislators (at least House members and senators up for re-election) have been sobered by the bottoming out of their approval ratings—to some degree a function of the brinkmanship of this summer. That said, legislators are good readers of their districts, and I suspect that many GOP from true red districts are willing to stick to their guns ideologically. Same for Democrats from true blue districts.

12:52 [Comment From Geoff: ] If the mandatory cuts are triggered, my understanding is that the decision as to where the mandatory cuts would come from, would be made by OMB. Doesn’t that give the white house significant political leverage in the process and motivate the Republicans to do a deal?

12:53 Sarah Binder: My understanding is that OMB has the final say in the law in terms of calculating the savings achieved under a joint committee bill. But that doesn’t empower them to decide where the savings come from. That said, if Congress cuts “X” from an agency’s budget, that agency certainly has some discretion over how to allocate its budget.

12:53 [Comment From r. jenkins: ] With the committee split equally, what happens if there’s a deadlock? who breaks a tie?

12:54 Sarah Binder: Under the deficit law, it takes 7 of the 12 members to report a bill. Absent a majority, there’s no joint committee bill and thus no procedurally protected legislation.

12:54 [Comment From Leonard: ] I’ve heard that this is equivalent to Congress putting a gun to its own head to force itself to act. Just how dire are the automatic cuts that will kick in if the super committee fails?

12:57 Sarah Binder: The automatic cuts are seen as quite dire (1.5 trillion split evenly between defense and domestic spending, with some cap on the level of cuts to be sustained by Medicare and some exclusion of some programs that affect the poor). These triggers are real and painful (if Congress doesn’t undo them). What I wonder though is whether BOTH parties would really fear the cuts equally. It’s possible that Democrats fear being called weak on defense and thus fear both defense AND domestic cuts. SOme GOP clearly prefer low taxes to defense spending, and thus might not fear the trigger so much.

12:58 [Comment From Elbert G.: ] Do you think that what is eventually recommended will come in one package or in a series of bills?

12:59 Sarah Binder: My hunch is that the joint committee—if it can agree to something—will package it in a single bill. First, the law only refers to a joint committee “bill” (not “bills”), and legislators will want the protection afforded by lumping all the tough votes together rather than voting piecemeal—especially if the bill includes measures to address jobs.

12:59 Erika Lovley: Great, thanks everyone.

12:59 Sarah Binder: Thanks for the great questions!