What Will The Super Committee Do?

With the membership of the congressional “super committee”  almost finalized, it’s worth asking:  Who do the members  represent?  The answer to that question may provide clues regarding how they plan on devising $1.5 trillion in deficit cuts by November.  One way to think about the answer is to draw on political science theory regarding congressional committees more generally.   That’s what I’ll do in this post.  First some background:

With yesterday’s announcement by Speaker John Boehner, the Republican membership on the joint House-Senate committee is finalized.  Boehner appointed Dave Camp (R-Mich.), Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) to the panel, where they will join Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s picks:  senators  Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), Rob Portman (R-Ohio), and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.).  Their Democratic counterparts, as announced by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid two days ago,  are  Max Baucus (D-Mont.), John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.).   House Minority leader Nancy Pelosi has until August 16 to announce the final three members of the committee.

 Under the terms of the debt agreement negotiated to end the debt impasse, this super committee has until Nov. 23 to deliver a deficit reduction proposal that has majority support among its members. Assuming it can do so, the committee’s proposal will then go to each chamber for an up-or-down vote by Christmas.  If the committee cannot achieve a majority, or if the full chambers do not approve them, automatic across-the-board spending cuts will be triggered – something most members in both parties do not want to see.

 So, what can we expect from this committee?  The answer depends in part on what you think motivates them. In this vein, political scientists have classified congressional committees as one of three types, according to what is the dominant interest driving committee members’ choices.  These (not necessarily mutually exclusive) categories are:

1. The Committee Autonomy View:  One view is that committee members are largely free agents whose decisions reflect their own individual electoral and policy preferences. From this perspective, committee members are not very responsive to the full chamber or to the party leadership.  Instead constituency and district influences are more important.

2. The Chamber Dominated Perspective:  In this view, committees primarily represent the interests of the full chamber in which they serve, and they use their policy and political expertise to help the full chamber craft effective policy.  That is, the committee members serves primarily in an informational capacity.

3. The Party Dominated Perspective:   The third view sees committee members as primarily responsive to their respective party.  Members pursue the party’s interest because they benefit electorally if the party is able to pass a partisan-based legislative program that enhances the party’s “brand name”.  For this reason the committee members will fight hard in committee for policies that the full party prefers

Before applying these analytic frameworks – individual, chamber or party – to predict what the supercommittee might do, a couple of caveats are in order. To begin, these three perspectives may be more useful for understanding House committees than their Senate counterparts.  Second, they are usually used to explain the motivations of members on  standing, or permanent, committees in a particular chamber.  As a joint committee, it’s not clear how relevant these models are to understanding the super committee.  Nonetheless, they at least offer an initial way of thinking about what is likely to motivate the nine members selected so far.  So, let’s see where they take us.

1. Senate Democrats. Baucus, Kerry and Murray are all liberal members of the Democratic Senate caucus who chair key Senate committees. Kerry heads Foreign Relations, and Baucus chairs the Finance Committee. Murray chairs the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) charged with furthering the electoral fortunes of Senate Democrats in 2012.  Based on Simon Jackman’s ideological rankings, Murray is the 9th most liberal member of the Senate, Kerry the 20th and Baucus the most moderate at 36. None of them is up for reelection earlier than 2014.  It seems clear that Reid expects these individuals to act on behalf of his leadership team, working for the electoral interests of Senate Democrats. That is, the party-dominated perspective is likely to best explain how they will approach the budget cutting exercise. Remember, Democrats are in grave danger of losing control of the Senate in 2012.  Note that Reid did not appoint any of the three Democrats – Dick Durbin, Kent Conrad, or Mark Warner – who were part of the Gang of Six whose deficit plan included significant entitlement reform. Although Baucus did serve last year on the president’s bipartisan fiscal commission, he opposed the compromise package authored by that panel.  So my expectation is that these individuals were chosen not so much for their budgetary expertise, but instead because  they carry political weight in the Senate, and their proposals are likely to receive party support.  Reid’s counting on them to protect Democrat’s political and policy interests.  My guess is that means the three will link any deficit reduction to an increase in taxes, and will likely resist entitlement reform that is linked to a reduction in benefits or a delay in eligibility.

2. Senate Republicans. In contrast to Reid’s uniform purpose, McConnell’s picks seem to reflect a range of motivations. While it is true that all three have pledged to oppose tax increases, they may be more amenable to tax reform if it is paired with ways to rein in entitlement costs. Toomey, a freshman Senator and former president of the conservative Club for Growth lobbying group, is the most conservative, ranking 9th in Jackman’s ideological rankings for conservatives in the Senate.  He’s on the committee, I think, to protect the interests of the tax cutting conservative wing of the Republican party. In contrast, Portman and Kyl are relatively liberal Republicans, ranking 32 and 41 on the conservative scale.  Kyl, as McConnell’s chief deputy, is the second ranking Republican in the Senate, and has already announced he will not seek reelection in 2012.  He will be the party leadership”s voice in deliberations, ensuring that what comes out will meet the party’s approval. Portman, like Toomey, is also a freshman Senator.  Note that before winning his Senate seat Portman served as OMB director under George W. Bush, so he brings a wealth of budget expertise to the table. Although he opposes tax hikes, he has expressed support for portions of the Gang of Six deficit reduction plan.  In some respects, then, he comes closest to playing an informational role.  Note that neither Toomey nor Portman is up for reelection in 2012, so none of the three Senate Republicans are going to be directly motivated by electoral concerns.

Bottom line?  It seems that McConnell’s picks illustrate all three motivations at work. I think Toomey and Portman may have some freedom to pursue personal preferences, although this autonomy may lead them in different directions during committee deliberations.  Toomey, as a Tea Party favorite, will be dead set against revenue hikes. But I expect Portman to be more open to some type of revenue enhancement linked to tax reform, in return for entitlement changes.   Kyl, meanwhile, will serve as elder statesman tasked with making sure the Republican Party’s broader interests are protected.  I think these three are more likely to go in different directions, and that at least some of them will be amenable to making a deal.

3. House Republicans. Boehner’s team is best viewed as an arm of the party leadership. All three appointees are veteran lawmakers. Significantly, none are members of the Tea Party caucus. Indeed Both Camp and Upton are among the more liberal Republicans in the House, and both chair important House committees – Camp heads Ways and Means, and Upton is chair of Energy and Commerce. So they bring some economic expertise to the table and they are responsive to the party leadership.  Hensarling, although much more conservative, heads the House Republican conference which basically administers the party caucus in that chamber and therefore is also tied closely to Boehner’s leadership team.  By cutting out the Tea Party caucus, Boehner is likely hoping his  team will come back with a proposal closer to the grand bargain he almost signed with President Obama.

So, where does that leave us?  The missing pieces of the puzzle are the three House members Pelosi will appoint.  My guess is that she will come back with three liberal appointees who will be responsive to her leadership, and who will be focused on protecting entitlement programs from significant cuts.  If so, that will make it harder for Democrats to compromise.

There are a couple of additional factors that complicate forecasting the committee’s deliberations.  First, there is significant pressure to make the committee’s deliberations “transparent”.  In my view, this is a mistake, because transparency makes it harder for committee members to make difficult choices. (Do you think we ever would have gotten a Constitution approved in Philadelphia if the delegates’ every move was scrutinized on the evening news and dissected in blog posts?)  So much depends on how deliberations are carried out.  Will there be a gag order imposed?

Committee members also have to anticipate how their choices will be received in their host chambers. In this respect, I think Republicans have more flexibility to give ground than do Democrats.  Keep in mind that this committee only needs a simple majority to vote out a proposal. If a majority can support a deficit reduction package that meets the $1.5 trillion target through a combination of deep spending cuts; entitlement reform that centers on some combination of benefit reductions, eligibility delays and – perhaps – means testing; and revenue enhancement based on the closing of tax loopholes and deductions, and reductions of subsidies, this might be enough for Boehner to push it through the House. He’ll likely lose some Tea Partiers, but he could pick up enough Democrats to get this passed, based on a coalition similar to the one that passed the debt default bill.

The Senate is dicier, in large part because Reid and his fellow Democrats are under tremendous electoral pressure to retain majority control in 2012, which militates against making hard choices. If Senate Democrats torpedo the super committee’s recommendations, then automatic cuts are supposed to kick in.  The problem with the automatic cuts is that they provide a semblance of political cover to Democrats who can say, “I tried to protect your benefits, but the Republicans played hardball and now the decision is out of my hands.”

These committee theories, then, provide one way of trying to frame what the supercommittee might do, but they leave a lot of wiggle room. At this point, my best guess is that we are in for a reprise of the debt default game of chicken, with both sides playing brinkmanship right up until the impending deadlines force them to choose.  I think there is room for a deal, however, along the lines of the “grand bargain” discussed by Boehner and Obama.   The biggest obstacle to that deal in committee, however, may be the Pelosi Democrats.  I’ll return to this topic when she makes her choices known.

2 comments

  1. Professor-

    Why do you not factor in the automatic cuts triggered by Congress’s failure to act on the committee’s proposal? It seems to me that the cuts actually strengthen the hand of Republicans arguing for a cuts-only path. Yes, such a proposal fails in Congress and triggers cuts in defense and non-defense discretionary spending.

    But, both the president and Defense Secretary Pannetta have already publically stated their reluctance to further cut into the defense budget. I have a very hard time believing that Democrats – particularly moderate and hawkish Dems (including Obama), as well as the larger party’s historic fear of looking like they’re against the military – will *allow* defense cuts to actually take place. It seems to me that political constraints *on the Democrats* mean that the triggers will actually hit entitlements and non-defense discretionary spending and NOT the defense budget.

    Don’t the Democrats’ own politics ultimately mean that the Republicans can gamble on a re-play of the debt ceiling standoff? The Rs don’t really lose much.

  2. Ark – You may be correct that Democrats will be reluctant to sign on to any deal that involves deep defense cuts, nor will they allow automatic cuts to occur that will have the same effect on Pentagon spending. For what it’s worth, however, Reid did not put any deficit hawks or defense advocates on the supercommittee, and I don’t expect Pelosi to do so either. That doesn’t mean the committee members won’t protect defense. But they have to find spending reductions somewhere, and if it’s not defense, then it’s something else – like entitlement programs, which is an even bigger no-no to Democrats. That’s why I think the pressure for a grand bargain that includes revenue increases may be enough to overcome the political costs of cutting Pentagon spending.

    But let’s be honest – all we can do is speculate at this point until the full committee composition is announced, and we get a feel for the committee’s dynamics.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>