WASHINGTON -- Debt ceiling negotiators think they've hit on a solution to address the debt ceiling impasse and the public's unwillingness to let go of benefits such as Medicare and Social Security that have been earned over a lifetime of work: Create a new Congress.
This "Super Congress," composed of members of both chambers and both parties, isn't mentioned anywhere in the Constitution, but would be granted extraordinary new powers. Under a plan put forth by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and his counterpart Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), legislation to lift the debt ceiling would be accompanied by the creation of a 12-member panel made up of 12 lawmakers -- six from each chamber and six from each party.
Legislation approved by the Super Congress -- which some on Capitol Hill are calling the "super committee" -- would then be fast-tracked through both chambers, where it couldn't be amended by simple, regular lawmakers, who'd have the ability only to cast an up or down vote. With the weight of both leaderships behind it, a product originated by the Super Congress would have a strong chance of moving through the little Congress and quickly becoming law. A Super Congress would be less accountable than the system that exists today, and would find it easier to strip the public of popular benefits. Negotiators are currently considering cutting the mortgage deduction and tax credits for retirement savings, for instance, extremely popular policies that would be difficult to slice up using the traditional legislative process.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has made a Super Congress a central part of his last-minute proposal, multiple news reports and people familiar with his plan say. A picture of Boehner's proposal began to come into focus Saturday evening: The debt ceiling would be raised for a short-term period and coupled with an equal dollar figure of cuts, somewhere in the vicinity of a trillion dollars over ten years. A second increase in the debt ceiling would be tied to the creation of a Super Congress that would be required to find a minimum amount of spending cuts. Because the elevated panel would need at least one Democratic vote, its plan would presumably include at least some revenue, though if it's anything like the deals on the table today, it would likely be heavily slanted toward spending cuts. Or, as Obama said of the deal he was offering Republicans before Boehner walked out, "If it was unbalanced, it was unbalanced in the direction of not enough revenue."
Republicans, however, are looking to force a second debt ceiling fight as part of the package, despite the Democratic rejection of the plan. Under the Republican plan, lawmakers would need to weigh in on the debt ceiling during the heat of the presidential election, a proposal Democrats reject as risky to the nation's credit rating. "We expressed openness to two stages of cuts, but not to a short-term debt limit extension," a Democratic aide close to the negotiations said. "Republicans only want the debt ceiling extended as far as the cuts in each tranch. That means we’ll be right back where we are today a few months down the road. We are not a Banana Republic. You don’t run America like that."
The aide said that Democrats are open to a series of cuts as well as a Super Congress, but only if the debt ceiling is raised sufficiently so that it pushes past the election. "Our proposal tonight was, do two tranches of cuts, but raise the debt ceiling through 2012 right now, though the McConnell process would be one way," said the aide, leaving open the possibility that Boehner could craft a new process and distinguish it from McConnell's, which the Tea Party despises as a dereliction of duty. "Do that now with a package of cuts, and have the joint committee" -- the Super Congress -- "report out a package that would be the second tranch. Republicans rejected that, and continued to push a short-term despite the fact that Reid, Pelosi and Obama all could not have been clearer that they will not support a short-term increase. A short term risks some of the same consequences as outright failure to raise the ceiling -- downgraded credit rating, stocks plunge, interest rates spike, etc. It is unclear why Republicans have made this their sticking point."
Boehner spokesman Michael Steel argued that the inability to come to a larger deal so far left a short-term extension as an "inevitable" option. "For months, we have laid out our principles to pass a bill that fulfills the president's request to increase the debt limit beyond the next election. We have passed a debt limit increase with the reforms the American people demand, the 'Cut, Cap, and Balance' bill. The Democrats who run Washington have refused to offer a plan," he said in a statement. "Now, as a result, a two-step process is inevitable. Like the president and the entire bipartisan, bicameral congressional leadership, we continue to believe that defaulting on the full faith and credit of the United States is not an option."
Obama has shown himself to be a fan of the commission approach to cutting social programs and entitlements. Shortly after taking office, Obama held a major conference on deficit reduction and subsequently created, by executive order, The National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. The White House made two telling appointments to chair the commission: The first was former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.), a well-known critic of Social Security who earned notoriety by suggesting, among other things, that the American government had become "a milk cow with 310 million tits!" Yet Obama's Democratic appointment was even more indicative of whose interests took priority: former Clinton White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles. Bowles is a member of Morgan Stanley's board of directors; an adviser to Carousel Capital, a private equity firm; and a director of Cousins Properties Incorporated, a firm with significant investments in commercial and mixed-use real estate.
Simpson and Bowles, perhaps unsurprisingly, produced a report recommending corporate and high-end tax cuts, along with cuts to Social Security, Medicare, veterans' benefits and a host of other social programs.
The commission needed 14 of 18 members to approve the plan in order for it to advance to Congress for a vote. The commission fell short, but did win a majority.
Proponents of slashing spending won't make the same mistake with a new Super Congress. Only a simple majority will be necessary.