The appointees to the bipartisan “super committee” on deficit reduction strongly resemble the political leaders who put them there.
The Democratic and Republican leaders in the House and Senate each appear to have had a common goal in choosing members for the new Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction: They picked top lieutenants and allies, lawmakers they can trust not to go their own way and to cut a deal only with the leaders’ blessing — or, more likely, their fingerprints.
“I don’t really see you’ll be getting anybody going rogue in this group,” said David Walker, the former U.S. comptroller general who now heads the Comeback America Initiative, a budget watchdog group.
There are no members on the panel who championed the various deficit reduction efforts that took place outside of the leadership’s auspices — no senators from the Gang of Six, for example. None stand out as political mavericks.
The resulting committee is less a band of brothers willing to strike a deal on deficit reduction and more an extension of the leadership foursome who will decide whether there is a deal to be struck.
The 12 members — three each appointed by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) — have vast power as part of the debt deal reached by Congress and President Obama this month.
By Nov. 23, the panel is supposed to come up with a plan to slice $1.5 trillion in federal deficits over the next 10 years through spending cuts, tax hikes or a combination of both. If seven members agree on a plan, the resulting bill is guaranteed an up or down vote in both houses of Congress. Only one super committee Democrat or Republican would have to switch sides.
“Everyone’s picking safe people — if nobody sticks their neck out, they get a 6-6 tie,” said Robert Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a budget watchdog group.
“They are certainly able, capable, knowledgeable members, don’t get me wrong,” Bixby said, noting that four of the panel’s members served on the president’s bipartisan fiscal commission — but voted against its recommendations. “It’s a lot of the same players who have been voting no on compromises or failing to agree to compromise this year.”
The panel’s authority to short-circuit the ways in which Congress can bottle up action makes its members more powerful than almost anyone else on Capitol Hill. That worries other members of the House and Senate who could be left on the sidelines.
Republican Sen. Olympia J. Snowe of Maine expressed concern in a recent letter to Senate Finance Committee leaders, which under normal circumstances would be central to any agreement. But instead of naming independent deal-makers like her, the leaders all seem to have made a top priority of keeping the group’s potential power under control.
The leadership could use the panel as a vehicle for a broad budget deal if the economy continues to deteriorate and pressure increases to do something dramatic.
Currently, however, both parties are apparently banking that their side will emerge from the 2012 elections with the stronger hand, before they give any ground in budget negotiations. That means the panel is far more likely to deadlock, observers say. A stalemate would result in automatic defense and domestic spending reductions that would begin taking effect in January 2013.
Since all sides would prefer to avoid automatic cuts, the leaders also could use the committee’s recommendations as a template for a deal to be brokered with Obama sometime next year — before the election, if the politics demand it, or during a lame-duck session at the end of the year.
Reaching a deal remains a political long shot, especially as Republicans have refused to consider new taxes and Democrats have resisted cuts to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security without new revenue.
Polls show that voters side with Democrats on this issue, preferring what Obama calls a “balanced approach” that includes new taxes on corporations and the wealthy rather than the GOP insistence on spending cuts alone. But Obama so far has been unwilling to force the issue.
The committee’s composition departs from the makeup of the overall Congress in several ways. It includes 11 men and just one woman, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash), who will be a co-chairwoman. Two members are minorities, named Thursday by Pelosi to what was becoming an all-white panel.
The committee is also made up of budget and tax policy specialists, fitting for the work ahead, but without the breadth of professional and policy experience that exemplifies the ranks of the House and Senate.
The panel includes two former White House budget officials, Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), under President George W. Bush, and Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), under President Reagan, and Congress’ two chief tax policy writers, Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.).
Its other co-chairman, Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), was a protege of former Texas Republican Sen. Phil Gramm, architect of an earlier budget deal.
The super committee’s loyalties to leadership run deep: Half hold official positions in their caucus hierarchies and almost as many chair other powerful committees.
Only the two newest-elected lawmakers fall out of the leadership orbit. Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) appears to have been appointed as a nod to “tea party” conservatives. The other, Portman, has drawn the most interest from budget hawks because of his past position as a director of the Office of Management and Budget. He is believed to have considerable understanding of the nation’s debt problems.
“If they were really thinking about a deal here, they’d pick the people who had been working on it all year — you’d pick the Gang of Six and you’d pick some people in the House who have similar views,” Bixby said.
“Overall I’m not optimistic, because it does look like a group that is likely to perpetuate the trench warfare we’ve had the last year.”