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.