First, a comment on Rep. Barney Frank, whose retirement from the House will cause mourning among all in the Congress-watcher and Congress-lover fraternity.
Of course, a part of the dismay will come from the loss of the Massachusetts Democrat’s wit and personality. But the larger part will come from the loss of one of Congress’ great legislators. I am biased to some degree because he has been my friend for many years (although I, like everyone else who knows him, have been subject to his acerbic side).
But it is impossible not to acknowledge that Frank has been a model legislator to the core, using his formidable intelligence, his ability to attract first-rate staff, his combination of deep philosophical beliefs and pragmatism, his understanding of policy and politics and his command on the floor to have a profound effect on policy and society.
It is difficult to stand out as one of 435 of anything — and that is even more true in a cacophonous place such as the House, which is filled with big personalities. Some stand out just by saying outrageous or over-the-line things, which is now, sadly, a surefire way to raise big bucks and even become a presidential candidate. But few truly stand out, becoming forces inside Congress and outside because of their ideas and their legislative talents. For decades, Frank has been in that small category, and his departure from the House will leave a big void.
The news about Frank took attention away for a bit from the failure of the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction and the agenda ahead for the remainder of the year. The super committee’s inability to reach any agreement was shrugged off by most observers as the expected outcome, and it was, but I was deeply disappointed nonetheless.
If its creation was in and of itself a sign of failure in the regular order, its extraordinary powers gave it a unique chance to accomplish big things in the face of our deep dysfunction. No panel in Congress has ever had the ability to craft a proposal of any magnitude it desires and get guaranteed up-or-down votes without amendment or delay in both chambers.
The opportunity — and the template — was there to craft the grand bargain that every bipartisan group had recommended. There were four months to take Simpson-Bowles, Rivlin-Domenici and the “gang of six” plans and meld them into one, adding as much as $4 trillion in deficit reduction over 10 years with $1 trillion to $1.5 trillion in revenue increases, coupled with tax reform and about $1 trillion from reducing the growth path of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security added to the nearly $1 trillion already agreed to as part of the debt limit plan. Add in some savings from winding down U.S. participation in the Iraq and Afghan wars and voilà.
What happened? I believe the major reason was the breakdown on taxes — the inability of the Republicans on the panel to commit to anything in the vicinity of the area of the neighborhood of $1 trillion in revenues, even for a grand bargain. But there is another reason to keep in mind, and one that is important to deal with in the months ahead. The fact is that the template provided by each of the groups above was nothing more than a template. None of the plans gave the depth or detail of specific policies on taxes or in many areas of spending that could easily be translated into legislative language or scored by the Congressional Budget Office.
That made the task of the committee much harder. It was not impossible, in my judgment: If the panel had plunged ahead right after it was formed to find a grand bargain, there was ample time to craft a plan in detail and get it scored. A tax reform plan based on cutting rates and putting a cap on deductions based on percentage of adjusted gross income designed to find the right mix in those areas that also raised the right amount of revenue over 10 years could be done by the staff of the Joint Committee on Taxation pretty quickly. And many of the Medicare ideas in the Simpson-Bowles, Rivlin-Domenici and gang of six plans could also be put expeditiously into legislative language. But it would have been much easier if the details were already there to do a plug and play.
It has been exactly a year since the Simpson-Bowles plan came out and almost a year since Rivlin-Domenici. What a shame that neither the administration nor Congress took the plans and did the heavy lifting to translate ideas into details well before the super committee was created.
If we somehow get through December without another meltdown over the continuing resolution for this fiscal year’s appropriations, payroll tax cuts and other tax provisions set to expire at the end of the year — much less the train wreck looming on doctors’ fees for Medicare — there will have to be another focus next year on long-term deficit and debt reduction.
The pressure from looming sequesters and the realization that the Bush tax cuts really will expire in a year — and that if they don’t come to the table, Republicans could end up with a big tax increase in return for nothing, gaining neither tax reform nor entitlement changes — could bring us back to a stab at a grand bargain.
Many lawmakers already are talking about finding a way to get an up-or-down vote on Simpson-Bowles. Whether it is a vote on Simpson-Bowles or, better, a vote on an amalgam of the best ideas from the Simpson-Bowles, Rivlin-Domenici and gang of six plans, somebody better start now moving from template to specific policies to legislative language, to be ready if and when the time comes.
Norman Ornstein is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.