In the weeks since the failure of the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction, U.S. debt has grown by roughly $40 billion.
At a time of great anxiety about the future of our nation, one thing is painfully clear. Absent Congressional action, our indebtedness will increase inexorably until the point that our society will be forced to change in ways that are neither gradual nor graceful.
In both its creation and ultimate demise, the super committee offers useful insights that Congressional leadership must consider in the months ahead. Formally named the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, the nickname “super committee” was coined because the 12 participants were endowed with legislative “superpowers.”
Unlike the regular Congress that bogs itself down with intractable obstacles, the dynamic dozen was assured that any consensus would receive a speedy vote in both chambers, with success determined by simple majorities. Next, the super committee was created with the expectation that Democrats and Republicans would rely on a shared expert staff and actually spend time together negotiating in good faith. Finally, the super committee was engendered with a consequence for failure via the dastardly sequester.
As we all know, even with these advantages, the super committee was not up to the task. While views differ over whether committee members were picked from diverse factions to craft a politically viable solution or defend party-line positions, many members engaged in detailed negotiation and advanced serious proposals. When Congress ultimately confronts our debt crisis, many of the key agreements will reflect the work of the super committee.
When diagnosing the super committee’s failure, much attention has been given to the challenges of electoral partisanship and base-driven ideological discord. To varying degrees, these challenges are embedded in our democracy and not likely to change anytime soon.
However, there is another more mundane and curable factor that undermined the super committee’s chances: 98 percent of the Congress, including numerous committee chairmen, did not want to be left out of the action. It is one thing to uniquely empower a special committee to circumvent the parochial imperatives of every Member to oppose closing military bases in their districts. It is completely different to delegate the future of the country to just 2 percent of the Congress, a group lacking the infrastructure, procedures and time to craft a comprehensive solution.
There is a better approach. Congressional leadership has the complete authority to create a super Congress with the heroic traits commonly attributed to the greatest democracy in the world — a process that enables forceful and substantive disagreements to yield functional solutions.
The keys to unlocking a fiscal solution are well-known. Congress must generate bipartisan support to reform Medicare and tax policy in ways that gradually reduce spending and increase revenue. As demonstrated by the Bowles-Simpson and Bipartisan Policy Center’s Domenici-Rivlin efforts, these solutions require thoughtful design and collaboration without violating our social contract or affronting the core incentives to compete, strive and innovate that are fundamental to our values and economic strength.
Toward this end, majority leaders should ensure that the minority parties have meaningful opportunities to offer and debate amendments on any debt legislation. Minority leaders should commit to limit the use of tactical procedures to delay action or require supermajorities. Leadership must shift the current incentives and encourage members to work publicly and privately to identify areas of agreement on entitlements and taxes. At a minimum, leadership must encourage members to simply interact with one another.
While it is unlikely that Congress can pass comprehensive legislation before the 2012 elections, they can’t afford to waste the next year. Historically, on issues of this magnitude, leadership must step in to craft the compromise. However, committees of jurisdiction should be instructed to hold hearings throughout 2012 and generate the legislative proposals that form the basis of the ultimate package. If the balance of power does not shift decisively, Congressional action is possible during the 2012 lame-duck session.
Finally, Congressional leadership must take greater responsibility for explaining the consequences of inaction to an anxious but largely uninformed public.
The powers afforded to the super committee were hardly extraordinary. In fact, they represent the rudiments of the legislative process. Instead of passing another law designed to work around its self-imposed dysfunction, Congress should rediscover the basic tools and traditions it has used to overcome prior challenges and get to work. If joined by a committed and engaged president, our system, despite its flaws, can solve this problem before it’s too late.
Jason Grumet is president of the Bipartisan Policy Center.