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.
Because each of the three models were reputedly successful, we have seen them employed in various ways in recent rounds of deficit reduction efforts, but without success. In 2009 Sens. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., and Judd Gregg, R-N.H., introduced a bipartisan bill calling for a deficit reduction commission composed of both members of Congress and private citizens. Its recommendations would be put to an up-or-down vote in Congress. The proposal was rejected in January 2010 by seven votes when seven of the original Senate Republican sponsors voted against it.
That led President Barack Obama to issue an executive order in February creating an 18-member deficit reduction commission that included 12 members of Congress. Popularly known as the Bowles-Simpson Commission after former Clinton White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles and former Sen. Alan K. Simpson, R-Wyo., the commission’s final recommendation garnered 11 votes in support but could not muster the requisite 14 votes to make a formal recommendation to Congress.
We saw a variation on the theme in August 2011 with the appointment of a Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction stemming from the debt limit imbroglio. It also failed to produce a final report for an up-or-down vote. One thing that has remained constant throughout has been the threat of the sequester if Congress does not act.
Next month Congress will face the twin peaks (or is it a double bluff?) of a debt limit breach and sequester chop. Once again, leaders are floundering for an exit strategy from this puzzle palace of fun-house mirrors reflecting infinite images of cliffs, peaks, bluffs and guillotines.
Perhaps the time has come to set aside the process gimmicks and return to real problem-solving through collective deliberation. Congressional leaders are not magicians and should not be expected to repeatedly pull off debt- defying feats. Members should stop complaining about the lack of leadership in Congress and at the White House and start acting like legislators.
Don Wolfensberger is a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, a resident scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.