Return to supercommittee mulled in Senate

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Although overshadowed by the presidential campaign, a serious move is underway in Congress to try to end the dysfunction around the budget process and set up new fiscal commissions to reduce the debt.

The effort, led by Senate Budget Committee Chairman Mike Enzi and bipartisan interlocutors, is not an attempt to reach a grand bargain or solve any of the fiscal problems that face the country.

Instead, the senators are discussing overhauling the way Congress sets budgets and appropriates funds to cut down on the number of regular fiscal crises — threatened shutdowns especially — that have dogged lawmakers in recent years.

Part of the reform would be to create committees, similar to the 2011 “supercommittee” established in negotiations between President Obama and congressional Republicans, empowered to hammer out debt reduction strategies to be presented to the House and Senate for votes.

Although some of the proposed changes would alarm partisans on both sides, some budget experts have long sought a change to the rules that have been in place since 1974, saying the stalemate has to be broken.

“The budget process is not working,” said Steve Bell, a budget expert at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington think tank.

Most glaringly, the government has been brought to the brink of shutdown, or actually shut down, a number of times during the Obama era, and major decisions about taxing, spending and the federal debt have been made late or not at all.

Yet those government spending fights, Bell noted, have taken place over just one part of overall spending, namely discretionary spending. More than two-thirds of spending is mandatory spending, which is spending that is incurred automatically without Congress doing anything, either through entitlement programs like Social Security or interest payments on the debt.

The bipartisan ideas suggested by Enzi last week include some measures to prevent debates over discretionary spending from snarling Congress’ work, including by scheduling mandatory floor consideration for spending bills and moving to biennial budgeting.

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Those ideas would make life easier for Congress. More important, however, for the purposes of addressing the rising federal debt, would be the commissions.

The federal debt is on track to rise from about 75 percent of national economic output to 86 percent in 2026, and then upward thereafter. Driving the rising debt, according to the Congressional Budget Office, is the growing spending on entitlement programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, as well as interest on the debt.

The reforms could address that dynamic by creating long-term debt targets and then empowering bipartisan special commissions to negotiate policies for reaching those targets. Then, they would send the recommendations to Congress for an expedited vote.

Chrissy Harbin, a budget analyst at the group Americans for Prosperity, said her group would favor a fiscal commission that forced Congress “to take an honest look at federal spending.” Americans for Prosperity, a political nonprofit backed by the Koch brothers that advances free-market policies, has sought in recent years to sway Congress away from last-minute deals on government-wide spending bills and toward a more normal process.

The original supercommittee, formally the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, was not popular within either party. Although it was empowered to make recommendations to change any program to cut $1.5 trillion in spending over 10 years, its members, six Democrats and six Republicans, failed to reach agreement. Because of their inability to reach a compromise, the across-the-board cuts on discretionary spending known as sequestration went into effect.

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Bell, however, agreed that a new committee could have better results as long as Congress made it more powerful by “putting some starch into it, some strength into it.”

However, Veronique de Rugy, a budget expert at the libertarian Mercatus Center, dismissed the value of a powerful supercommittee, noting that it would open the door to tax increases, rather than purely spending cuts as she would prefer. Such a committee would “not necessarily guarantee that something good is going to happen,” she said.

Nevertheless, the best argument in favor of rolling the dice with a powerful committee comprising both parties might just be that the status quo is unsustainable, from the point of view of analysts who fear a debt crisis at some point.

The ideas put forward by Enzi, Harbin said, are a first step toward improvement over the status quo. “People are sick at the grassroots level of this unwillingness to get federal spending under control,” she said.

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