Backgrounder: Super Congress


What the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction is: As part of the Budget Control Act of 2011 (S. 365 Public Law 112-25 [.pdf]) deal to raise the debt ceiling, Congress created a joint committee, sometimes referred to as the "Super Congress" or "Super Committee." 

The law calls for a bi-partisan, 12-member committee; the House speaker, House minority leader, Senate majority leader and Senate minority leader will each get to appoint three members. The unusual construct and the committee's ability to collaboratively write legislation is rare in the American legislative process, but some observers have drawn parallels between the committee and the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process.

The Super Congress's task: The Budget Control Act of 2011, which will incrementally increase the debt ceiling limit by as much as $2.4 trillion over the previous $14.3 trillion limit, tasks the committee with recommending legislation by Nov. 23, 2011 that will cut "discretionary funding and direct spending" by $1.5 trillion through 2021. The law does not specifically define whether the entire $1.5 trillion must come from budget cuts or if it could also come from tax revenue increases.

Republicans such as Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.), who chairs the House Budget Committee, say the committee cannot recommend that tax cuts from the George W. Bush presidency expire. "The Budget Control Act's requirement that the Committee use CBO estimates creates structural scoring impediments to imposing tax increases to meet its goal to achieve at least $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction," Ryan wrote on August 2.

But Gene Sperling, director of the White House's National Economic Council, says the Super Congress can consider any measure that will reduce deficits. "The Budget legislation specifically calls for deficit reduction - not simply spending cuts - and does not anywhere require the Committee to work off a current law baseline," Sperling said on August 1.

By Dec. 23, 2011, Congress must vote the committees' proposal up or down, meaning the legislation only requires a simple majority in the Senate, rather than the 60 votes needed to break filibuster. Not only would the legislation be filibuster-proof, it cannot be amended in any way.

If the legislation passes, the president can increase the debt limit by $1.5 trillion; if not, then the government is obligated to make across-the-board spending cuts to discretionary spending worth $1.2 trillion and the president can increase the debt ceiling by $1.2 trillion. The president could exempt military personnel accounts from across-the-board cuts, provided that the exempted amounts are saved elsewhere in the Defense Department budget. 

Criticism: Sen. Jefferson Sessions (R-Ala.) said he was opposed to the committee, while speaking on the Senate floor before the bill's passage. "I am also concerned about the dubious special committee. It is a plan that allows congressional leaders to dictate critical national issues without being subject to full committee process and without amendment. Such actions are a serious evasion of historical Senate procedure," said Sessions. Sen. Benjamin Nelson (D-Neb.) also opposed the joint committee, telling the Washington Times, "I have reservations about a committee, in any event. I'm not anxious to cede any of my responsibility to a group of others."

Transparency concerns: Some groups have expressed concern that the joint committee will have an extremely powerful role in shaping policy, but may not be subject to the same transparency obligations as other congressional committees. "Right now, the creation of the committee doesn't come with many requirements for transparency," noted the Project on Government Oversight.

In a letter to Congressional leadership Aug. 3, the Sunlight Foundation recommended the joint committee include on its website:

  • Live webcasts of all official meetings and hearings,
  • the Committee's report should be posted for 72 hours before a final committee vote,
  • disclosure of every meeting held with lobbyists and other powerful interests,
  • disclosure of campaign contributions as they are received (on their campaign website), and
  • financial disclosures of Committee members and staffers.

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