Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction Has Been Set Up to Fail

The Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act (PL 93-344) passed the House and Senate in 1974 with almost no dissenting votes — 75 to 0 in the Senate and 401 to 6 in the House.

By today’s hyperpartisan standards, the fact that a law dealing with the budget passed with virtually no opposition seems miraculous. It happened for two reasons.

First, the law was outcome-neutral; It was just a process that, unlike all of the budget processes that came later, didn’t dictate what the outcome should be or how it should be done. That fact — that the process could be used to increase or decrease the deficit or surplus by increasing or decreasing taxes and spending — made it possible for almost everyone to vote for it.

Second, because the law didn’t specify what was to be accomplished, everyone was able to assume that it would help them do what they wanted done. If you read the debate on the Congressional Record from 37 years ago, you’ll see that conservatives thought the act would make it easier to reduce the deficit, liberals thought that it would help transfer funds from the Pentagon to domestic purposes, etc. The fact that it wasn’t intended to do any of those things didn’t really matter; the Congressional Budget Act, they said, could be used to do them.

In other words, the CBA was the federal budget equivalent of the fable of the six blind men touching an elephant. Each man touched a different part of the elephant and, because they couldn’t see the whole thing, described it only by that one part.

This ancient (at least by federal budget standards) history is important when you look at the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction — the 12-person committee created by the “Budget Control Act,” the debt ceiling increase deal signed into law yesterday.

The Budget Control Act of 2011 overall, but especially the Joint Select Committee (for now and evermore to be called by me on CG&G as the JSC) is being viewed in precisely the opposite way from the Congressional Budget Act of 1974. CBA was seen as an opportunity to change the debate and make some progress. By contrast, the Budget Control Act and the JSC are seen as things to be feared and, therefore, prevented from succeeding.

This has become completely and incontrovertibly evident in the less-than-24 hours since the law was signed. During that time, congressional Republicans have made it clear that they won’t appoint anyone to the JSC who will support tax increases of any kind. They’ve even gone so far as to say that JSC doesn’t have the authority to consider tax increases, although no one else seems to be able to find that prohibition in the law.

Democrats, meanwhile, have said that they won’t appoint anyone to JSC who will consider cuts in Medicare, Medicaid, or Social Security.

This is why the JSC is bound…or virtually guaranteed…to fail. Although none have yet been named, the members of the committee look like they will be chosen on the basis of one thing: A refusal to compromise in any way.

The JSC will be made up of six Democrats and six Republicans, 3 each coming from the House and Senate. As this story by Robert Pear in today’s New York Times and this post from Michael Tomasky in The Daily Beast shows, there is already a good deal of speculation on who might be appointed.

Here’s what you should expect as far as JSC’s membership is concerned:

  1. Regardless of whether they’re Democratic or Republican appointees, the representatives and senators named to the committee will be junk yard dogs when it comes to negotiating. Expect real hard asses whose first words every moring when they get up and every night when they go to bed are “no,” “no way,” and “never.”
  2. Each side will appoint one person who knows something about the budget and, more importantly, has access to staff that will prevent agreements on technical issues like baselines that could inadvertently give up something.
  3. Almost no one appointed will either be running for reelection in 2012 or have a tough reelection fight.
  4. No member of the Gang of Six — who ultimately demonstrated a willingness to work with the other side and compromise — are likely to be appointed. This almost certainly excludes Tom Coburn (R-OK) and Mark Warner (D-VA).
  5. No mavericks need apply. The leadership in both houses and both parties will want to control this closely.

Given all this, it’s just not likely that the JSC will be to agree on much of anything by the November 23 deadline imposed by the Budget Control Act.

About Stan Collender 126 Articles

Affiliation: Qorvis Communications

Stan Collender is a former New Yorker who, after getting a degree from the University of California, Berkeley, moved to Washington to get it out of his system. That was more than 30 years ago.

During most of his career, Collender has worked on the federal budget and congressional budget process, including stints on the staff of the House and Senate Budget Committees; founding the Federal Budget Report, a newsletter that was published for almost two decades; and for the past 11 years writing a weekly column for and now

He is currently a managing director for Qorvis Communications, where he spends most of his time working with and for financial services clients.

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