The next round of "grand bargain" fiscal negotiations is going on right in front of the public’s eyes.
In committee rooms across Capitol Hill, lawmakers are digging in on the details of tax reform and the federal budget, holding hearings and discussing issues from the tax code to changes in entitlement programs. It's a public airing of the debate over the federal government's taxing and spending priorities, a stark contrast to the behind-closed-doors negotiations among a select few that have marked recent attempts to amend fiscal policy in the United States.
Such a process, some leading lawmakers believe, could help Washington move toward a modest deal among the GOP-led House, the Democratic-led Senate, and President Obama to trim spending, tweak Social Security or Medicare, and head off yet another D.C.-driven crisis – such as a clenched-jaw trip to the fiscal brink this summer when Congress must again confront raising the national debt ceiling.
Rep. Dave Camp (R) of Michigan, chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, is one of those believers.
“I think you build consensus on big things from the committee level up, from the ground up. You need members to be involved,” said Representative Camp at a breakfast sponsored by The Christian Science Monitor on Thursday.
There’s a very particular reason Congress is churning its legislative gears ahead of fiscal negotiations to come, instead of waiting for a small crew of lawmakers to sort things out. Grand-bargain-by-select-committees "haven't worked very well," Camp said wryly.
Look at the roster of those leading the fiscal battle on both sides: Sen. Patty Murray (D) of Washington and Sen. Max Baucus (D) of Montana in the Senate and Rep. Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin and Representative Camp in the House. What do those members have in common? A lot of time spent in closed-door, small-group negotiations, from the Simpson-Bowles commission on deficit reduction back in 2009 to the so-called supercommittee tasked in 2010 with heading off the "sequester."
“I think a grand bargain is what the supercommittee was all about," Camp said. "As a veteran of that group, I don’t think those are how you build consensus in the Congress to move something.”
On Wednesday, Representative Ryan and Senator Murray issued a joint statement calling for a conference committee on the House and Senate budget resolutions.
Considering that Ryan’s budget balanced in 10 years and featured no tax increases while Murray’s included nearly $1 trillion in new taxes and never balanced, many figured the budget process had run its political and ultimately irreconcilable course. Instead, Ryan and Murray appear to be trying to use the regular order to forge a compromise.
Of course, not everything about the next fiscal fight is out in the open. Mr. Obama in the past two months has dined in private with nearly half the Senate’s Republican caucus, and Camp and Senator Baucus, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, are meeting weekly to compare tax-reform notes, for example.
Thus, while “regular order,” as the process of advancing legislation through committee is known on Capitol Hill, gets a lot of love from lawmakers, Camp is not ruling out going another route should the opportunity present itself.
“I’m going to walk down every street I can to get tax reform done,” he said.
Whatever avenue Congress and the president take, the destination is probably going to be less grandiose than envisioned when Washington began its intense fiscal battles in 2010. Early dreams of a sweeping package that would, in one swoop, shave more than $4 trillion from the deficit over the next decade have receded – in part because piecemeal efforts have so far produced $2.5 trillion in deficit reduction.
Ryan told reporters Wednesday that the goal should be a “down payment” on dramatic changes to taxes and spending because the political dynamic of divided government will not allow a wide-ranging accord.
“There is potential to make a down payment,” Camp agreed Thursday, noting that his committee will hold hearings on areas of accord between House Republicans and the president on entitlement reform.
“There are some common themes in terms of what we could do. Will that necessarily solve all the problems with these entitlements? No,” he said. “But I think they’ll do a bit to helping make them sustainable for the long term.”