Legislative Politics

Be careful what you vote against: Creating super committees

Aug 4 '11

As congressional leaders move to make their appointments to the Super Congress (aka the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction), it’s worth remembering Congress’s last attempt to empower a special joint committee to report a bipartisan plan for reducing the deficit.  That effort to establish a “Bipartisan Task Force for Responsible Fiscal Action” died when its Senate sponsors, Republican Judd Gregg and Democrat Kent Conrad, failed to secure 60 votes for passage in the Senate.   The 53-46 vote was a classic ends against the middle vote with more conservative Republicans and more liberal Democrats tending to vote against the plan.  Defeat of the plan spurred the president to create the Bowles-Simpson commission by executive order.

What would the Gregg-Conrad panel have entailed?  It bore a strong resemblance to the super committee established under the deficit deal, with some important differences.

First, the Gregg-Conrad panel would have consisted of 18 members (evenly split between the parties), plus the Treasury Secretary and one member of the administration.  The panel’s makeup of course advantaged the Democrats, potentially creating 11 votes for Democrat-favored plan.  But the panel would also have worked under a supermajority reporting rule, requiring 14 votes to formally report a plan for Congress’s expedited consideration.  All else equal (which it might not be), the new joint committee’s simple majority voting rule increases the panel’s chances of reporting a deal.

Second, like the joint committee, the Gregg-Conrad panel would have been guaranteed expedited consideration of and up-or-down votes in both chambers on any plan that it successfully reported.  Neither a Senate filibuster nor the House Rules Committee could have blocked the panel’s handiwork from coming to the chamber floors.  But unlike the new deficit law that mandates a simple majority vote in both chambers to approve the joint committee’s bill,  any deal reached by the Gregg-Conrad panel would have had to muster three-fifths majorities in both chambers.  Had the Gregg-Conrad panel been created and settled on a “grand bargain” (with new revenues and entitlement cuts), conservative and liberal opponents would have had an easier time blocking the grand deal on the House and Senate floors.  In contrast, should the joint committee agree to a similar plan (perhaps under the threat of the triggers), the plan’s chances of enactment are higher.

These procedural details of course don’t guarantee that the joint committee will be able to reach a bipartisan deal.  But the contrast with the Gregg-Conrad plan makes plain the comparative advantages that have been baked into the new joint committee’s DNA.  The contrast might also give pause to the senators who voted last year to kill the Gregg-Conrad panel.