The Congressional Spectator

How Super?

Will the so-called super committee end up pitting defense hawks against anti-taxers?

By From the October 2011 issue

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Can anything good come out of the super committee? It’s a question frequently being asked in Washington and conservatives are unsure of the answer.

The 12-member joint congressional committee, evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, was formed at the end of a tumultuous debate over raising the federal debt ceiling. Its members are tasked with identifying and recommending $1.5 trillion in new spending cuts over 10 years by Thanksgiving. If they fail -- or if Congress declines to enact their handiwork -- it will set off a “trigger” automatically imposing $1.2 trillion in cuts over the next decade, to be taken equally from defense and nondefense spending. (Most entitlements are excluded.)

No matter how super, committee members will have their work cut out for them. There would be no committee in the first place if congressional Democrats had been willing to contemplate spending cuts of this magnitude at the time the debt limit was increased. Most Republicans will also balk at the reduction of defense spending necessary to win bipartisan approval.

“Nobody really knows what’s going to happen,” admits one Republican congressional staffer. “We’re cautiously optimistic, but this could go in a lot of directions.” Until the super committee’s recommendations are made, Capitol Hill conservatives are unsure of what their strategy should be.

The six Republicans on the committee are mostly conservatives. Rep. Jeb Hensarling of Texas is a co-chair. He cut his teeth working on fiscal issues with former Sen. Phil Gramm and was once chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee. Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania is also a leading economic conservative who previously headed the Club for Growth. Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp both having conservative voting records and are close to GOP congressional leaders.

Possible question marks include Sen. Rob Portman, an Ohioan who wasn’t exactly part of last year’s Tea Party tidal wave, and Rep. Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican who attracted substantial conservative opposition when he ascended to the House Energy and Commerce chairmanship. But most of Upton’s transgressions are not on economic issues and Portman, as a former Bush administration budget director, is knowledgeable about federal spending.

Moreover, sources report that the Republican leaders in both houses have been hands-on with regard to the super committee process. “I don’t think any of these guys will get too far away from what the leadership wants when coming up with proposals,” says a GOP staffer. And the leadership won’t want to get too far away from what their rank-and-file members can support.

The Democratic membership is predictably liberal. Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the committee’s Democratic co-chair, actually runs the Democrats’ Senate campaign committee. Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland is a recent past chairman of the Democratic House campaign committee, and Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts was the party’s presidential nominee in 2004. (Kerry reportedly lobbied for his super committee slot.) South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn is the assistant House Democratic leader.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus of Montana and Rep. Xavier Becerra of California round out the Democratic selections. Baucus is a member to watch in terms of deal-cutting, as he has evinced some interest in deficit reduction in the past. Liberal bloggers were not happy with his appointment. One Daily Kos poster asked pointedly, “What the f-- k is Harry Reid thinking?”

“Max Baucus?” the Kossite asked in a typical netroots reaction. “The guy who fought every jot and tittle of health care reform?” Conservatives are likely to remember Baucus’ role in the health care debate somewhat differently -- though he certainly played a role in sinking the public option -- which should temper their enthusiasm. Liberal blogger Matthew Yglesias noted that “Baucus served on the Simpson-Bowles Committee and ultimately voted against its recommendations on the grounds that they weren’t left-wing enough.”

The committee has already agreed to hire a Republican, Mark Prater, as staff director. Prater was deputy staff director and chief minority tax counsel for the Senate Finance Committee. This move was also panned in progressive circles, but some Democrats praised Prater as a solid consensus pick.

That’s about the end of what we do know about the super committee. Its handiwork remains up in the air. So, in some quarters, does its legitimacy. In a speech before the Heritage Foundation, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich blasted the panel as unconstitutional and warned that it might raise taxes rather than reduce spending.

“This is a city that says, ‘well, we’d really like to do better, but we can’t do any better so we’re going to have to do less of what we’re doing or we have to raise taxes,’” Gingrich fumed. “Since you don’t want us to do less of what we’re currently doing, we have to raise taxes, because after all you can’t expect us to change, so we’re going to expect you to change so you can pay the taxes we’re going to demand of you. But you can’t expect your government to change.”

Some might dismiss this as hyperbole from a floundering presidential candidate. But Hill conservatives do worry what might result from the pursuit of a “grand bargain” between the two parties. Past bipartisan agreements have included the debt deal and the continuing resolution that funded the federal government for the rest of this year, which most conservatives found inadequate. Another such grand bargain was the tax-raising 1990 budget agreement, which ultimately helped catapult Gingrich into the top spot among House Republicans. That poisoned the well for future deals, as the spending cuts proved illusory while the tax increases were very real.

BOTH THE STRUCTURE of the committee and the nature of the spending on the table seems almost designed to pit national security hawks against anti-tax fiscal conservatives. Tax increases could potentially save the defense budget from major cuts. Every Republican on the committee and most in Congress have taken Grover Norquist’s pledge not to raise taxes.

“No doubt, we’ll start to see more and more opposition from conservative defense hawks to slashing the military budget, while the Norquist crowd will continue to push Republicans to accept more defense cuts to avoid any increase in taxes,” concludes Philip Klein in the Washington Examiner. “Some of our members could accept defense cuts,” says a Republican staffer. “Others would fight them.”

The last attempt at a grand bargain -- the Simpson-Bowles committee on budget reform -- failed both sides. Conservatives balked at the additional revenues commission members wanted to raise while liberals rejected the spending cuts. Super committee boosters hope the new panel will be as successful as the commission that began recommending military base closures in 1988.

Others point to the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act of 1986, which had mixed results. Gramm-Rudman did lead to some spending caps and had a salutary effect on the budget deficit. But the law was under attack almost immediately and its sequesters never ended up happening once major spending programs were threatened. Some think the triggers could face the same fate. “It’s possible nothing could happen,” says a Republican congressional aide.

“I’m not optimistic,” says Sen. Mike Lee, who notes that he voted against the agreement setting up the super committee in the first place. The Utah Republican quickly rattles off all the reasons to doubt the bipartisan panel. But even Lee is unwilling to discount it entirely. “I’m always going to be in favor of anything that could facilitate spending cuts,” he says. We’ll see if that’s what we get.

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About the Author

W. James Antle III, author of the new book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?, is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and a senior editor of The American Spectator. You can follow him on Twitter @jimantle.