Deficit 'super committee' flooded with ideas. Will any of them work?

Friday is the deadline for congressional committees to submit ideas to the deficit 'super committee.' But there's little indication that any of the ideas signal an openness to compromise.

Mike Theiler/REUTERS
Congressional Super Committee members Rep. Fred Upton (R) of Michigan, touches Sen. Jon Kyl (R) of Arizona as he chats with Sen. Rob Portman (R) of Ohio as they depart the inaugural meeting of the committee last month in Washington.

The 12-member congressional "super committee" charged with reining in future federal deficits has been deluged with recommendations. But as of Friday, the deadline for committees of Congress to present their recommendations, there is little indication that any big, bipartisan deal is on the table.

Some proposals have already arrived, more are expected Friday. But many of the ideas have been rattling around the halls of Congress for years: raise taxes, invest in small businesses, cut wasteful spending, cut more deeply at the Pentagon, go after unneeded agricultural subsidies, and so on.

But early reports signal that lawmakers have mainly seen this as a partisan exercise that restates rather than reconsiders fixed party lines. For Republicans, it’s calls to cut spending and entitlements. For Democrats, it’s calls to raise taxes and avoid entitlement cuts.

With the 2012 election cycle looming, few committee chairs want to be seen volunteering cuts critical to key constituencies that could be key to retaking – or maintaining – their majority. Instead, some panels are using this input period to caution against cuts on their turf.

Specifically, the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction is tasked with crafting a roadmap to cut at least $1.5 trillion from federal deficits during the next 10 years by Nov. 23.

Some GOP chairs are taking their proposals directly to the joint committee, without releasing formal proposals. Others are recycling proposals that have been fought to a standstill in previous legislative cycles, such as a longstanding GOP plan to cut costs by reining in medical malpractice suits.

For example, House Judiciary Committee chair Lamar Smith (R) of Texas proposes capping non-economic damages at $250,000 – a longstanding priority for doctors and hospitals. That, together with limits on how and when lawsuits can be filed, could cut federal deficits by $57 billion over 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Meanwhile, House Democrats directed the top Democrat on each committee to submit his or her own deficit reduction plans. That’s because, in most cases, GOP chairmen “declined to hold committee hearings or to develop recommendations with Democratic members,” said House minority leader Nancy Pelosi in an Oct. 13 letter to the super committee.

Letters from the top Democrats on 16 House panels urged the super committee to cut deficits by growing the economy – in other words, to take another look at the president’s jobs bill that died in the Senate this week – and by increasing tax revenues.

Some members are working out super committee proposals independently. Democratic Reps. Barney Frank of Massachusetts and Rob Andrews (D) of New Jersey are developing a plan that aims to rein in the 40 percent increase in Pentagon spending since 2001 that is not related to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“The Joint committee is sorting through a large stack of policy proposals that have been well vetted and well reasoned for years,” says Congressman Andrews.

And the process is not limited to Congress's permanent committees.

The Congressional Progressive Caucus is urging the panel to keep entitlement spending off the table for deficit cuts and, instead, to raise taxes on the rich. Conservative groups outside the Congress are also weighing in with sweeping budget-cutting plans that have yet to gain traction on Capitol Hill.

This proliferation of plans has set some panels, notably the Armed Services Committees, in defense mode. Congress has already agreed to cut defense spending by $450 billion during the next 10 years. In his first major policy speech this week, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned Congress to avoid further steps that could “hollow out” the military. To meet deficit targets, the Pentagon expects cuts to weapons systems and the size of the military, he said.

Should the joint committee fail to produce a plan that can win the support of at least 7 of the 12 members – or should the Congress fail to pass it – automatic spending cuts are mandated to kick in beginning 2013, including $600 billion to come from defense spending. Members of the armed services committees in both the House and Senate this week cautioned the joint committee to not look to defense for deeper cuts.

"Not all elements of the federal budget are equal," said Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon (R) of California, who chairs the House Armed Services Committee, in a letter. "In particular, the budget function for National Defense has already experienced significant reductions since the discussion to reduce our national debt began this Congress."

At a press briefing on Oct. 13, Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said that Congress can nullify the mandate for automatic cuts.

“If there’s a failure on the part of the super committee, we will be among the first on the floor to nullify that provision,” he said. “Congress is not bound by this.”

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