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.