It's Sunday. I'm at the beach. But we're supposedly on the brink of a "deal" to extract ourselves, at least temporarily, from the debt ceiling crisis. And a key part of the "deal" is supposedly the creation of a sort of extraordinary committee of lawmakers, to be charged with the task of finding something in the neighborhood of $2 trillion worth of spending cuts in exchange for a similarly-sized hike in the debt ceiling. So I'm just going to blurt out a few troubling thoughts about this idea that I think you should consider.
- I don't think there's anything that's yet been outlined about this committee that's unconstitutional on its face. There are plenty of joint committees in Congress, and this one would be little different in its proposed composition: 12 members in total, six from each chamber, evenly divided among Republicans and Democrats. Their work product, if any, would be fast-tracked on the floors, likely protected from amendment (unusual) and with debate time-limited (like budget resolutions and reconciliation bills).
- Should this committee fail to reach a conclusion regarding recommended cuts by late November, automatic, across-the-board spending cuts would be imposed instead, with possible exclusions for Social Security and Medicaid, and any cuts to Medicare supposedly to come from payments to providers rather than cuts in benefits. It's also been reported that Democrats are hoping to protect programs for the poor from drastic reductions. But what's not being discussed is what constitutes a failure of the committee. I don't see how anyone who's been observing this Congress could fail to consider the most likely outcome of a committee that's split 6-6: deadlock. And since deadlock also means across-the-board cuts, the committee is really stacked at least 7-6 in favor of indiscriminate cuts. And there's nothing "evenly divided" about that.
- The committee task—to take on the "tough choices" and force them through, aided by expedited floor procedures—is pretty much a rewrite of the already existing reconciliation process (which itself has rules protecting Social Security from cuts). Haven't we all already seen the movie where Republicans agree to such "sensible" rules, and then turn around and abuse them wildly (e.g., using what was supposed to be an extraordinary deficit reduction tool to instead pass enormous tax cuts and balloon the debt beyond recovery), and yet demonize the process when Democrats use it (e.g., pretending it's the "nuclear option" during the health insurance reform debate)?
- The House, with its use of special rules to govern the consideration of individual bills, and its ability to adopt those rules by a simple majority vote, can already do most of what this special committee can do. That is, they can already time limit debate on its report, and easily protect it from amendments. Where this kind of protection is a problem is in the Senate. And what's particularly troubling about that for Democrats is, the Senate is the house Democrats still control.
- Budget resolutions and reconciliation bills, as I mentioned, are already protected by law from filibusters (but not from amendments). And it's unlikely that this new special committee will be tasked with detailing cuts down to the programmatic level. That'll probably still be left to the very powerful appropriations committees. Instead, member of this special committee will likely be recommending far more generalized cuts in spending under the various "budget functions", leaving decisions about exactly which programs will absorb how much of those generalized cuts to the appropriations subcommittees that dole out the dollars they're given to work with. And if that's the case, you're really talking about this special committee being a kind of supplemental, cuts-only, adjunct budget committee. But since we already have one budget committee in each house, and each party controls one of them, why not just agree to let them do the work, and protect their conference agreement from amendment?
- In a similar vein, if the experts don't agree (or won't acknowledge) that a committee split 6-6 between Democrats and Republicans is almost guaranteed to simply come out deadlocked, let's take the last thought about the budget committees into consideration and ask whether Paul Ryan would mind very much if we required that the House Budget Committee be evenly split between the parties. I'm betting he wouldn't think that was such a great idea.
Lastly, a thought that's still a little too inchoate to warrant its own bullet point, I'll note that when Members of Congress (and particularly Senators) try to design a procedure for themselves that they hope (perhaps beyond all reason) will actually work, they design one without a filibuster. Last year, when reformers proposed that the rules of the Senate be revised in order to avoid potential catastrophes like this (and yes, we had the debt ceiling in mind, among other things), it was just too kooky to contemplate! What a bunch of idiots those Cheeto munchers are!
(By the way, for a let's-all-look-back-and-share-a-laugh moment, check out the Howard Fineman article I referenced in the above-linked post, wherein it is posited that the decision not to raise the debt ceiling with Democratic majorities in both houses last year was really a very, super-clever and sneaky way of "sticking it" to the incoming Republicans. Medals of Freedom all around, boys!)
Today, of course, the Very Serious People of Washington propose as their Very Serious Solution ... changing the procedural rules of the Senate to get this done, but in a sneaky, end-around way that somehow won't require a 2/3 vote (which we were once told was itself an inviolable rule of the Senate) to get it done.