Super Budget Committee is not so super
© Greg Nash

When the bipartisan budget agreement was unveiled last week, one news report mentioned in passing that the deal included the creation of “a new, super budget committee.” That misleading terminology must have triggered heart tremors in those who remember the last time Congress created a budget “super committee” in 2011.

Among other things, the Budget Control Act Congress enacted that August established a Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction and charged it with recommending, no later than Nov. 23, at least $1.5 trillion in spending cuts over ten years. On Nov. 21 the joint committee issued a statement that, “After months of hard work and intense deliberations,” it was unable “to make any bipartisan agreement” prior to the committee’s deadline. Consequently, the fallback axe, known as sequestration (designed primarily as a scare tactic to force a committee solution) fell, producing massive across-the-board spending cuts in defense and domestic spending alike.

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The Bipartisan Budget Act just enacted, on the other hand, raised the stringent statutory spending ceilings, enabling Congress once again to wiggle-out from under the dread sequester guillotine. In the process, according to estimates by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, it raises deficits another $420 billion (with interest) over the next decade, and, if made permanent, increases the national debt by another $2 trillion. That outraged fiscal conservatives, though not enough to sink the deal. One of the sops thrown to the deficit hawks in the act was creation of a Joint Select Committee on Budget and Appropriations Process Reform. Far from being a budget super committee in the 2011 mold, it is more analogous to the 1972 Joint Study Committee on Budget Control. That committee’s recommendations a year later led to the enactment of the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974 (creating the very process now under fire).

The latest iteration has the simply-worded goal, “to reform the budget and appropriations process,” and general duty to provide “recommendations and legislative language that will significantly reform the budget and appropriations process.” The 16-member joint committee is to be appointed by the leaders of the two houses within 14-days of enactment, evenly divided between chambers and parties.

The joint committee must hold its first public session not later than 30-calendar days after enactment, and hold at least five public meetings or hearings this year. Its final recommendations, with legislative language, are due no later than Nov. 30, 2018, upon the approval of a majority of committee members of each party from each house. In the Senate, the bill must be introduced by the majority leader and referred to the Senate Budget Committee. It must report it without change, either favorably or unfavorably, within seven days after introduction, or be discharged.

The act provides expedited procedures for Senate consideration of a motion to proceed to the bill’s consideration. After 10 hours of floor debate, the motion to proceed requires a three-fifths vote for adoption. The vote must take place no later than the last day of the 115th Congress. No special procedures are provided for House introduction, committee referral or reporting of the joint committee’s bill, or for its floor consideration.

The bill terminates the joint committee on Dec. 31, 2018, or 30 days after submission of its report and legislative recommendations. Presumably, the joint committee’s bill would be reintroduced at the beginning of the 116th Congress, and the committee could either be recreated or the bill’s final processing taken over by the budget and/or rules committees of the two houses. In 1973, the joint study committee on the budget was re-established by law because its final recommendations were not due until the close of the first session of the 93rd Congress.

Joint committees have a mixed history in Congress. While they were used more frequently in the mid-twentieth century, the Senate in effect swore-off standing joint committees after the House abolished the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy in 1977. The remaining joint committees include the Joint Economic and Joint Revenue committees (the latter essentially a staff tax-scoring operation); and two joint house-keeping panels (Library and Printing).

The two most recent temporary joint committees both met with failure –the 2011 deficit reduction joint committee described above, and the 1993-94 Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress. The latter effort was torpedoed in part by a group of House majority Democrats who refused to support any joint congressional reform proposal unless it included abolition of the Senate filibuster. That issue is likely to arise again with the latest joint committee, this time with House majority Republicans (and President TrumpDonald John TrumpBrennan fires new shot at Trump: ‘He’s drunk on power’ Trump aides discussed using security clearance revocations to distract from negative stories: report Trump tried to dissuade Melania from 'Be Best' anti-bullying campaign: report MORE) pressuring for ending the three-fifths cloture vote on filibusters, at least on appropriations bills.

Don Wolfensberger is a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center and Bipartisan Policy Center and former staff director of the House Rules Committee. He is author of Changing Cultures in Congress: From Fair Play to Power Plays (forthcoming).