A group consisting of three Democratic and three Republican senators—referred to as the "Gang of Six"—has been quietly working on a bipartisan budget option for over four months, but delays in releasing a proposal have turned optimism into pessimism.
Details of the plan are lacking, but Rudolph Penner, an institute fellow associated with the Urban Institute and previous director of the Congressional Budget Office, says, “It is pretty evident that they are having trouble right now.”
“They have been trying a long time and nothing has emerged, so overall it is pessimistic, in my view, that they haven’t been able to come up with anything,” Penner said.
The group had indicated that a plan would be forthcoming at the beginning of last week, in time for the beginning of the only other bipartisan work on the budget taking place in Congress: the Blair House budget talks.
The Blair House talks are being led by Vice President Joe Biden and involve six legislators, this time representing both chambers.
Biden was appointed by President Obama to forge a consensus, but many worry that the assembled negotiators lack the teeth to get the job done. The new "Gang of Six" held its second meeting on Tuesday.
The hope was that the Senate commission's work could provide a solid starting point for the Biden negotiations and quickly fast track the talks with a higher starting point.
“If they came up with something they could immediately put it into the negotiations Biden is conducting,” said Penner.
The Gang of Six are seen as having the experience and expertise to sort out complicated issues, and a willingness to push past traditional partisan divides for the sake of finding a workable solution. Many pundits have spoken of their effort favorably.
“I think that if they were able to agree on something relatively soon, I think it would have a dramatic impact on the debate. That would be very, very helpful,” said Joshua Gordon, policy director, Concord Coalition; an organization dedicated to fiscal federal responsibility.
Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), one of the six senators, announced that he will release a separate budget as early as this week, indicating that the group’s work is definitely delayed.
It is also suspected that the group has abandoned efforts to reach agreement on the specifics of the key budget planks, like taxes and spending.
Penner now believes they are working on a set of process reforms, something that would define deficit limits that would trigger automatic spending cuts if breached. A set of rules is needed to guide the required congressional action.
This kind of strategy was used in the 1980s and 1990s to deal with a previous deficit crisis. The Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985 established targets, and follow-up legislation three years later created the PAYGO mechanism to enforce the targets.
“If you wanted to cut taxes further to increase the generosity of entitlements you had to pay for it,” Penner recalled.
And he said it worked well, because there was bipartisan support behind a deficit reduction agreement. Only with bipartisan support does such an agreement work, he said.
Politics Dictate Results
Stan Collender, veteran budget expert and founder of the blog "Capital Gains and Games", is critical of the Gang of Six and the Biden negotiations, arguing that bipartisan support in the way people envision is unlikely; politics will ultimately dictate results.
“Ultimately the budget is a political, and not a substantive problem. You cannot take the politics out of the budget and expect that you are going to get a deal that is adoptable,” he said.
There is also a major difference between now and 1995, when Newt Gingrich, as speaker of the House, was able to negotiate a deal and be pretty certain that his caucus would follow him. The current speaker cannot do that, Collender said.
Collender said House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) was likely following the same rulebook that he used for the debate on the continuing resolution negotiations, which were completed at the 11th hour, just in time to prevent a government shutdown.
“He is going to scream and yell and pout and threaten to take his ball and go home, but at the end he is going to have to cut a deal because a deal is going to have to be cut,” Collender said.
A crucial vote to raise the nation’s debt ceiling and avoid a federal government debt default will have to occur by Aug. 2, the drop dead date set by the Federal Treasury.
Before that date, some kind of agreement will have to made. Boehner has already conceded that “allowing America to default would be irresponsible.”
On Monday, during an address to the Economic Club of New York, Boehner indicated that he would require at least $2 trillion in spending cuts before agreeing to increase the debt limit.
Boehner did not specify whether the $2 trillion represented substantive cuts, or an agreement on spending targets. He also failed to set a time limit to achieve the goal. This leaves him plenty of wiggle room to negotiate, Collender said.
Most experts say that eight weeks is not enough time to work out a comprehensive budget agreement, and an agreement on targets is the most that can be expected before the debt ceiling vote.