While it is unrealistic to expect the post-Election, pre-Inauguration Congress to achieve a so-called “grand bargain,” it could lay solid groundwork so that the next Congress can hit the ground running. The critical step would be for Congress to set up a process, significantly improved from last year’s failed “supercommittee”, that could open the way for a meaningful fiscal deal in 2013.
Second, instead of the Congressional leadership appointing members to a special committee, they should task the relevant existing committees — including Budget, Appropriations, Ways and Means, and Senate Finance — to come up with proposed tax, social insurance, and other spending reforms to meet the deficit reduction targets. The chairmen and ranking members of these committees would be part of a special working group assigned to take these proposals and craft a “grand bargain” into legislation by no later than September 2013. In order to ensure participation of the administration, the working group should have non-voting seats for certain officials in the executive branch, such as the director of the Office of Management and Budget. The president and top Congressional leaders would communicate periodically to keep this process on track, and the resident could make his own proposals for consideration.
Third, the lame duck Congress should include tougher enforcement mechanisms than the current sequester; real teeth that would compel Congress to take action. The next Congress should be required to vote on the legislation by the end of 2013, and waive current rules so that they only need a simple majority vote in the Senate. No filibusters allowed. If Congress fails to pass this legislation, then an automatic trigger of spending cuts and tax surcharges, on the same 3-to-1 ratio over time, would be enforced.
This process should force Congress to finally act. However, another key step would be to set up a new transparency and accountability mechanism that will ensure that Congress follows its own plan beyond 2013—a so called tax penalty or dividend approach. If deficits come in too high in coming years, it would trigger automatic tax surcharges; if Congress meets or exceeds its deficit reduction goal for that year, it would trigger tax rebates. This could be accomplished by adding a single new line item on individual tax returns. Nothing motivates elected leaders more than voter pressure, and this simple, transparent and automatic trigger system offers that in spades.
Our elected officials need to demonstrate much more leadership than last year, and they must do so before the end of 2012. If Congress does put in place such a process, they will then have the ability to extend some of the expiring provisions at the end of the year in order to avoid putting us back into a recession. For example, they could extend most or all of the Bush and Obama tax cuts for one more year, but if, and only if, it is coupled with a realistic framework and automatic enforcement mechanism to achieve long term debt reduction, like the one described above.
Washington needs to demonstrate that it is serious about putting our federal financial house in order. Otherwise, the type of debt challenges that are currently facing several European nations will reach our shores. And if they do, it won’t be pretty. Let’s take steps to make sure that doesn’t happen.
Walker is former comptroller general of the United States and CEO of the Comeback America Initiative.