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Back in the 1960s, a group of House Republicans was guided by the axiom “Procedure is substance; process is policy.” The Young Turks recognized that those who make the rules control the policy outcomes.
They therefore set out to change Congress to give the minority party more influence in policymaking. The minor victories they eventually achieved in the early 1970s — abolishing proxy voting in committees and increasing minority committee staff — were reversed at the beginning of the next Congress by majority Democrats in adopting House rules.
In recent times that process/policy axiom has produced a corollary: Process is policy except when it is used to delegate, divert and delay tough policy choices. Nowhere has this become more evident than in Congress’ struggles over the past several years to bring spending under control.
The era of budgetary constraints that dawned in the 1980s prompted Congress to devise ingenious new ways to address the problem without taking direct heat for the consequences. One early example that succeeded, at least on its face, was the 1982 National Commission on Social Security Reform, aka the Greenspan commission. The 15-member commission headed by Alan Greenspan, which included seven members of Congress, was created to save the system from imminent bankruptcy. Despite the urgency of the problem and clout of the commissioners, the body remained deadlocked in overtime and was only saved by a “gang of nine” (six commissioners and three presidential aides) meeting secretly at the home of White House Chief of Staff James A. Baker III.
The Baker gang’s recommendations were embraced by a grateful commission in January 1983, blessed by President Ronald Reagan and Speaker Thomas P. O’Neill Jr. and enacted by Congress. (An additional amendment offered by non-commission-member Rep. J.J. Pickle of Texas to extend the retirement age for benefits to 67 in 2027 proved to be the most significant cost savings provision in the entire act.)
Two other process models emerged in the 1980s. One was a device for achieving across-the-board spending cuts called the sequester. It was first introduced in 1981 by Texas Democratic Reps. Jim Wright and Phil Gramm as an action-forcing mechanism to get Congress to reduce the deficit through spending cuts. It was eventually enacted in 1985 as the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act (aka Gramm-Rudman-Hollings) in a bill to raise the national debt limit.
The act provided for a glide path to a balanced budget over five years by reaching specified deficit targets each year. The plan was abandoned in 1990 when the deficit targets proved inadequate. It was replaced by a system of statutory spending caps, but with the sequester mechanism still available if the caps were exceeded.
The other process model, championed by Texas Republican Rep. Dick Armey in 1987, provided for short-term, independent citizen commissions to recommend what domestic military bases should be closed. The Defense Base Closure and Realignment Act of 1988 provided for an all-or-nothing approach by which Congress could only approve or disapprove the entire package of recommended base closures. Failure to act allowed the closures to take effect.