Fiscal commission considers barriers to breaking budget

The White House fiscal commission is considering new barriers that could make it harder for future Congresses to break the budget. 

Commission members from both parties are worried that even if lawmakers enact their recommendations for cutting trillion-dollar deficits, Congress may weaken or bypass them down the line when forced to make tough decisions on slashing the budget. 

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Andy Stern, a fiscal commission member and former Service Employees International Union president, told The Hill that he and others on the panel are asking themselves, “How do we make sure Congress has a procedure to enforce the decisions we make?”

Members of the bipartisan commission — created by President Obama to produce a plan to cut deficits to sustainable levels — have been tight-lipped about their work. The panel’s GOP co-chairman, former Sen. Alan Simpson (Wyo.), said Wednesday in a brief interview in the Capitol that he wouldn’t talk specifically about the commission’s deliberations. 

But several lawmakers who sit on the panel have pushed budget reforms on their own in Congress.

A plan championed by Reps. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) calls for binding discretionary spending caps, a requirement that tax hike proposals receive supermajority support to pass both houses and a two-year budget process instead of the current annual process. Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) last week reversed his previous position against a two-year budget cycle, citing recent failures to move budget resolutions in election years.

Neither the House nor Senate voted on a full budget resolution for 2011, the first time that has happened since the current budget rules were put in place in 1974. Congress has now failed to pass a budget resolution, which sets annual discretionary spending caps and medium-term deficit targets, in four of the past five election years.

Congress has a track record of failing to adhere to fiscal austerity measures that it passed years before. For instance, lawmakers annually pass a Medicare “doc fix” to prevent reduced doctor payments scheduled under a formula set in a 1997 bipartisan budget deal. Congress has also annually passed a measure to prevent the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) from hitting middle- and upper-middle-class taxpayers. 

The annual “doc fix” costs about $20 billion; the “AMT patch” costs $70 billion yearly.

Democrats and the president this year enacted a major budget enforcement law — pay-as-you-go — that requires new mandatory spending or tax cuts be paid for with spending cuts or tax increases. But Senate Republicans have dismissed it as “Swiss-cheese” pay-go, noting that Senate Democrats have waived the restriction to pass mandatory spending measures that would add $266 billion to the deficit, which is expected to approach $1.4 trillion this year. 

Much of that spending was for extensions of unemployment benefits, which Democrats argued was emergency spending that didn’t have to be paid for.

Stern, a Democrat and strong Obama supporter, pointed to pay-go as an example of a budget enforcement mechanism that can work. He said others are available, but didn’t elaborate.

The commission hopes to produce a fiscal reform plan by Dec. 1. Senate and House leaders have pledged to hold floor votes on the plan if 14 of the 18 commission members support it. 

Asked if the commission would be able to muster those votes, Stern said it should but that he doesn’t know.

“I think the spirits have been good,” he said.