Jordan Tama is an assistant professor at American University's School of International Service and the author of "Terrorism and National Security Reform: How Commissions Can Drive Change During Crises."
Last week's agreement to raise the national debt ceiling cut about $1 trillion in federal spending over 10 years, while establishing a new congressional committee to come up with at least $1.2 trillion in additional debt reduction. The committee's structure will make it quite difficult, but not impossible, for the panel to succeed.
Creating ad hoc congressional committees or independent commissions to grapple with important issues is a long-standing practice in politics, and it's often denounced as a cowardly decision to kick the can down the road. Even President Barack Obama has criticized the use of such panels: When John McCain proposed forming a commission to study the financial crisis during the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama called the idea "the oldest Washington stunt in the book."
But when they are designed in a way that facilitates bipartisan agreement, special panels can be very helpful in charting a way out of a crisis and forging the consensus necessary for reform. Unfortunately for the new fiscal committee's prospects, independent commissions -- composed at least in part of individuals who are not serving in government -- tend to be more capable of forging consensus than committees composed entirely of members of Congress.
After the 9/11 attacks, a commission chaired by former Sens. Gary Hart (D-Colo.) and Warren Rudman (R-N.H.) provided the inspiration for the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, and the 9/11 Commission headed by former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean and former Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.) catalyzed a major overhaul of America's intelligence community. A few years later, the Iraq Study Group, led by Hamilton and former Secretary of State James Baker, provided the blueprint that Obama has used to wind down the Iraq War.
These commissions were successful because they were made up of distinguished Americans who were no longer holding public office and therefore were relatively free of partisan pressures. This freedom allowed the commissioners to make the compromises necessary to issue unanimous reports with strong bipartisan credibility. As Baker told me, "It helps to have 'has-beens' on commissions because they have no political ax to grind."
By contrast, consider the outcome of a special congressional committee, known as the Joint Inquiry, that was created to investigate the 9/11 attacks before the work of the independent 9/11 Commission. This special congressional committee, composed entirely of House and Senate lawmakers, became riven by partisanship and turf battles. Its final report included eight dissents that ran on for a staggering 200 pages. Those disagreements eroded the committee's legitimacy and prevented it from having much impact. It's the 9/11 Commission, rather than the Joint Inquiry, that history will remember as the definitive investigation of the attacks.
Like the Joint Inquiry, the new fiscal committee will be composed entirely of lawmakers, with six Democratic and six Republican members appointed by the leaders of the House and Senate. This structure will make it a microcosm of Congress, possessing all of Capitol Hill's fierce partisanship and intense ideological polarization. The congressional leaders have a strong incentive to appoint lawmakers who are loyal to their party's orthodoxy on hot-button issues like taxes and entitlement programs, in order to ensure that the committee isn't imbalanced in favor of the other party.
The result is likely to be a committee containing very few members inclined to reach a grand bargain that includes both tax increases and changes to Social Security and Medicare.
Yet other aspects of the committee's design give it a significant chance of succeeding. The legislation creating it stipulates that if a majority of its members agrees on a deficit reduction package in excess of $1.2 trillion, that package will be taken to the floor of the House and Senate expeditiously for up-or-down votes, without the possibility of amendments or filibustering.
This legislative fast-track means if only seven of 12 committee members can reach agreement, the procedural hurdles to enacting that agreement will be low. That's why some commentators have started calling the panel the "super committee."
What's more, members of the committee have an unusual incentive to reach agreement. If the committee fails to issue a majority report, $1.2 trillion in spending cuts will take effect automatically, with half of those cuts coming from security spending. No other special panel has had such a powerful hammer hanging over it. Since Republicans tend to want to protect military spending, some GOP lawmakers might be motivated to seek an agreement through the super committee that involves smaller defense cuts.
But Democrats will only agree to change the spending-cuts formula in exchange for Republican agreement to new tax revenue. Ultimately, much will therefore come down to whether one or more Republicans on the committee is willing to support a modest tax hike in order to preserve more of the defense budget. While quite a few congressional Republicans who are greatly concerned about the prospect of severe cuts to the defense budget would back this type of trade, it remains to be seen if any of them will be appointed to the committee.
House Republican leaders have said that they'll only appoint lawmakers who will oppose any tax increases, but Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell signaled that he might not apply this type of litmus test to his appointments. If he does not, a majority report that could win support in both houses might be within reach.
If at least some of the committee members are willing to pursue a compromise, their prospects for achieving one will be enhanced by their ability to hold private committee meetings. Regular congressional committees must generally conduct their business in public, but last week's legislation doesn't require that of the new committee. Private meetings facilitate serious negotiation by reducing the incentive for public posturing. On Wednesday, six very conservative Republican senators called for requiring all the committee's meetings to be public -- perhaps in an effort to sabotage its chances for agreement. Obama and the leaders of Congress should resist any pressure to make such a change, no matter how appealing it may sound to the public.
Whatever the outcome of the new committee, its creation underscores both the paralysis and creativity of our political system. The inability of the president and congressional leaders to agree to a grand bargain on their own illustrates the extreme difficulty of enacting reform in an age of hyper-partisanship and divided government. But their agreement to tie the work of the new committee to a deficit-reduction trigger is an innovative attempt to prod lawmakers to act.
Rather than scorning the committee as yet another buck passing-exercise, we should be grateful that it provides a glimmer of hope for the achievement of a more substantial deficit-reduction deal.