Could Debt Super-Committee Succeed?

Looming crisis, strict deadlines could force a compromise.

August 10, 2011, 3:56 PM

August 11, 2011 -- Watch out, Congress. There is a new committee in town. And this one is "super."

The super-committee's mission: Create a plan before Thanksgiving to cut $1.5 trillion in federal spending over the next decade. The cost of failure: Automatic $1.2 trillion in cuts to defense and discretionary spending. The likelihood of success: unknown.

Bi-partisan commissions similar to the one created by the recently passed debt ceiling extension are nothing new on Capitol Hill. In fact there have been more than 150 of them created over the past two decades, according to a Congressional Research Service report.

"Commissions are made because members can't stomach making choices that could have electoral ramifications. They provide a sense of political cover," said Jonathan Murphy, communications director for the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress.

A shining example of a successful commission, Murphy added, was the Base Closure and Realignment Commission. Instead of each military base's closure being decided by the full Congress, where members could face serious backlash if they voted to close a base in their district, the commission lumped all the base closures into one bill.

In the past two years alone there have been four separate commissions formed solely to deal with the country's ballooning debt.

The first was the Domenici–Rivlin Commission, led by former Senator Pete Domenici (R.-N.M.) and former Clinton budget director Alice Rivlin. They released a plan in November 2010 to cut the deficit by $5.9 trillion over 10 years. It had a spending cuts to tax revenue ratio of about 60-40.

But the Domenci-Rivlin Commission was comprised almost entirely of former lawmakers, not people who currently had a constituency and a party to report to. And the $650 billion in cuts per year came from some rather unpopular sources --creating a 6.5 percent sales tax and cutting some Social Security benefits, for instance.

Next came the president-appointed Bowles-Simpson Commission. This commission, while it was led by former Clinton aide Erskine Bowles and former Sen. Alan Simpson (R.-Wyo.), included primarily current members of Congress. Its December 2010 report recommended a savings of $4 trillion by 2020, broken down by about 75 percent in spending cuts and 25 percent in tax revenues.

When both these commissions failed to spawn Congressional action, a bipartisan group of Congressmen decided to take matters into their own hands, forming the Gang of Six.

This smaller take on bipartisan compromise developed a plan to strike $3.7 trillion from the deficit over 10 years in part by simplifying the tax code and raising an additional $1 trillion. The plan never made much headway in Congress because Republicans are fiercely opposed to any tax increases.

As the debt clock ticked down to the Aug. 2 debt ceiling deadline, Vice President Joe Biden led a fourth group of Congressional leaders in talks to produce a plan to increase the debt ceiling and reduce the deficit. But the Biden talks never produced a full plan because House Majority Leader Eric Cantor left the negotiations after Democrats insisted on including tax revenues. Before it disbanded, the group had been talking about reducing the deficit by $2 trillion over 10 years and raising several billion in tax revenue.

So it is with four failed attempts under its belt that Washington turns to the debt super-committee.

In order for a commission such as the debt reduction super-committee to be successful, it must have an immediate threat, tight deadlines, a clear mission, and a required vote, according to the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress.

By those standards this super-committee could succeed. If a solution is not reached there is a serious threat of financial calamity. The commission has a strict Nov. 23 deadline to present a plan. Its mission of reducing the deficit is clearly defined. Finally, its recommendation must be voted on by both chambers of Congress before Christmas.

But there is one glaring obstacle working against the commission: party ideology.

"Frankly, I'm not sure in this case they can do it," said former Congressman Bill Archer (R-Tx.), who served as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee from 1996 to 2001.

Archer, who was part of a 1991 deficit reduction commission, said that with Republicans' strictly adhering to their no-tax-revenue line and Democrats opposed to deep entitlement cuts, a compromise will be significantly more difficult than it was 20 years ago.

"There weren't people who were totally committed as they are now," Archer said. "I'm not sure there is any amount of pressure that the Republican leaders in the House and Senate, even if they are willing to do it, can put on Republican members of this commission to include some increases in taxes."

Archer said the final deal will probably boil down to terminology, like "tax reform" versus "tax increases," which he said can "create an image which is different than what is actually going to happen."

He said if a compromise is reached, it will probably be because one Republican breaks ranks and supports a Democratic plan that includes tax revenue.

"I don't know what in the world they can promise him or use to coax him across the line, but that will be their goal," Archer said.

"In this type of negotiation you normally want to get something for what you give up," he continued. "And in most instances you want to be able to come out and say you got more than you gave up. The problem in this instance is, if you are a Republican and you give up anything on tax increases, you've really gone out on a very thin political limb. I'm not sure you would politically be forgiven."

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