Representative Jeb Henslaring (R-Texas) and Senator Patty Murray (D-Washington) face a mind-boggling task. First, they must lead the 12-member panel, composed of six Democrats and six Republicans, to develop recommendations to reduce the federal budget deficit by a total of at least $1.5 trillion over 10 years. Then, each must persuade a majority of his or her own party members to vote for the agreement. This must all be completed by Nov. 23, 2011. And finally, they and the other Congressional leaders must convince Congress to immediately agree to the plan, with no amendments.
If they fail, then there will be mandatory across-the-board cuts to defense and domestic discretionary spending effective January, 2013. Congress loses its ability to choose where to reduce spending and where to invest. Under the failure scenario, agencies like FEMA which provide funding to help with natural disasters or the postal service, popular with constituents of both political parties, will have their funding reduced as deeply as programs popular with only a subset of Americans such as farm subsidies.
A second concern is the potential negative response of the financial markets and the economy in general to the inability of Congress to map out a plan for deficit reduction.
Getting to “yes” matters. The work began on Thursday, Sept. 8.
Will these 12 members of Congress succeed where other blue-ribbon panels—the 1947-49 Hoover Commission, the 1981-83 Greenspan Commission, and most recently the 2010 Simpson-Bowles Commission—have largely, and sometimes entirely, failed? The promise of these special panels is that they provide political cover around politically risky actions such as changes to entitlements and tax rates. But it will not work if Congress is not willing to act. Even in the case of the Greenspan Commission, held up as the one successful commission, commission members now say that Social Security was only saved from bankruptcy by separate negotiations between the President and the House leadership.
On the surface, it does not look good. There is a wide ideological gap between the parties over whether a tax increase should be included along with budget cuts. An impasse on taxes was the reason given for why the debt ceiling talks led by Vice President Biden over the spring failed.
Another gap is in the differences in the personal stories of those appointed to the panel. The six Republicans are Caucasian men with work backgrounds as attorneys, businessmen, or Congressional staffers. This also reflects three of the Democrats. But the Democratic co-chair is a Caucasian woman, one appointee is an African-American man, another is a Latino-American man, and two of them are educators. In my experience, elected officials form their sense of truth from their life experiences. For some, the United States is a level playing field, where talent, discipline, and hard work bring rewards. For others, they see inequalities in American society as stopping smart, deserving people from success.
People from widely divergent backgrounds and political philosophies can come to agreement over difficult, divisive problems. As a newcomer to Springfield, I watched Denny Hastert, then chair of the Illinois Legislative Committee to rewrite the Utility law who went on to become Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, craft legislation supported by both consumers and utility companies. His personal style helped; he listened carefully and worked hard to find a compromise that had something in it for all the players; not just those from his party. His work experience as a wrestling coach also made a difference. He relied on a tool box of skills in persuading, cajoling, threatening, and celebrating players, always emphasizing teamwork and setting achievable goals.
But I don’t see any Speaker Hastert lookalikes out there.
On the other hand, it took Nixon, a Republican and more conservative President, to establish ties with China. So, maybe this particular group of members of Congress who are so different from each other, who appear to be polarized from day one, will be the group to change the climate of distrust. Perhaps they will be the group to develop recommendations which will resonate with the entire Congress.
I hope so.