Reasons to be Optimistic about the Super Committee

The Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction—a.k.a. the “super committee”—will hold its first official meeting today (September 8th) at 10:30am.  Today’s meeting of the committee is an organizational one, with members debating and approving the committee’s rules and procedures.  Any student of Congress knows that rules and procedures are critical, so this is an important first step.  We will no doubt have a better understanding of the committee in the coming weeks (the first formal hearing is set for Tuesday the 13th).  What follows are a few of my preliminary thoughts on the super committee.  For a variety of reasons that I spell out in the following pages, I’m optimistic about the eventual outcome; I believe they will find a meaningful compromise (a bold claim, perhaps, given the recent debt ceiling fight).
My thoughts on the super committee are largely informed by my opinions on the operation of conference committees.  Conference committees, after all, share many important features with the super committee.  Both are joint ad-hoc committees.  Both are comprised of members selected by party leaders in consultation with the jurisdictional committee chairmen.  Both operate in a context marked by the competing forces of party discipline and seeking compromise.  Both are comprised (primarily) of policy experts.  And both have the power to make unamendable proposals to their respective chambers.

The first reason I’m optimistic about a successful outcome has to do with the norms and expectations in which the super committee will likely operate.  As far as explanatory factors go, norms have fallen out of favor with contemporary political science (what with the inherent measurement problems and all).   But in this case I think the norms and expectations of the committee provide a powerful motivation for members to seek compromises (that is, vote contrary to their partisan and/or ideological preferences).  This is an argument which has been made in the past with respect to conference committees.  Manley (1970, 271) noted that the “overriding ethic” of conference committees is “bargaining, give-and-take, compromise, horse-trading, conciliation, and malleability by all concerned.”   Longley and Oleszek (1989, 2) maintain that conference committees are “‘the epitome of legislative politics’ in terms of such processes as negotiation, bargaining, and compromise.” And Ferejohn (1975, 1035) noted that “recognition of the cooperative behavior between the House and Senate conferees can lead to a much different interpretation of data on conference decision-making.”  This is a point I have echoed in some of my own work on conference outcomes.  For example, if we use multivariate spatial modeling to compare pre- and post-conference roll-call patterns, what we uncover is that the process of resolving bicameral disputes is inherently multidimensional (rather than a typical left-right conflict) and that the primary explanatory dimension is one of policy compromise (either greater log-rolls or greater bill moderation).  This suggests that party discipline breaks down–to an extent–in these kinds of situations.  So in short, I think members of the super committee expect a priori to cut unpopular deals and this cognitive script will get the committee through the day.  Let’s not forget, after all, that the so-called super committee was created for this very reason.  These joint ad-hoc committees have secured critical compromises as far back as the drafting of the Constitution and, presumably, members of Congress have an idea about how these kinds of committees typically operate.

A challenge to the prior view is that the party leaders’ selection power is paramount in these situations.  A paper by Lazarus and Monroe (2007), for example, shows us that non-jurisdictional lawmakers are often chosen to serve in a conference committee for the purpose of skewing policy outcomes in a direction favorable to their party (away from the chamber median).  I agree with this view in principle (in fact I have some findings supporting it), though my work generally argues that pro-majority conference outcomes are much rarer than compromise outcomes.  But I think this question–though important–is moot in this particular case as Sarah Binder, Keith Poole and Seth Masket have each shown that members appointed to the super committee represent their chamber and party quite nicely (in other words, ideology does not appear to be a deciding factor in who was selected).  I think this is a powerful signal as to the top-down pressures on the committee (where that pressure is, get a deal done).  Even the staff selected to serve on the committee have been praised for working constructively with both parties.

Another reason I’m optimistic about the operation of the super committee has to do with expertise.  Quite simply, these members have been working on this issue for a while and are quite adept in this policy domain.  Two of the House and two of the Senate committee members—Chris Van Hollen, Jim Clyburn, Jon Kyl and Max Baucus—were on the Biden Committee.  Xavier Becerra was on the Bowles-Simpson committee.  John Kerry is a senior member of the finance committee.  Rob Portman, the least senior member of the super committee, just so happens to be a former director of OMB.  And Dave Camp is chairman of both Ways and Means and the Joint Committee on Taxation.  This bounty of expertise is important because often it takes policy expertise and skilled negotiators to craft a workable compromise.  Compromise is not easy, after all, in a Congress with few moderates.  Jim Clyburn, a Super Committee member, mentioned this point in a recent interview, noting that “despite all of this rhetoric, we have got a group of veterans here…you have got people who don’t have to do studying to reach a deal.”

Finally, the location of the status quo and the transaction costs incurred by the committee compels compromise as well.  Should the committee fail, the $1.5 trillion in spending will be made up with across-the-board cuts.  Those cuts are to be split evenly between defense and non-defense spending.  Though not as critical as failure on increasing the debt-ceiling, the status quo facing the committee is sub-optimal for members of both parties, I suspect.  There is also the possibility that a bipartisan deal could increase confidence in our financial system while a failure could seriously upset global investment in U.S. financial assets.  Regarding transaction costs, the committee members have invested significant legislative resources in securing a deal.  There have been, and will be, major “information” and “bargaining” costs involved in studying, negotiating, and drafting the final product.  Failing to secure a deal would be very costly for these individual members.  Such an outcome could come with a political price as well.

So those are some of my optimistic thoughts on the super committee.  There are reasons, of course, to be pessimistic about the committee.  For example, powerful lobbying and interest groups will no doubt push committee members in a direction other than compromise.  Some reports even suggest that the health care industry would prefer a failure and the automatic spending cuts.  Partisan bickering, politicking and grandstanding is also likely.  The question is whether these forces are greater than the prior forces.  Stay tuned…

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