WASHINGTON–As the super committee on debt-reduction got underway today with its first meeting, Rep. John Larson ramped up his campaign to expand the panel’s charter.
Larson wants to add job-creation to the super committee’s debt-reduction mandate, or create a parallel “super committee on jobs.” He has pitched the idea to each member of the debt-reduction committee. He’s lobbying outside groups to support it as well, including labor unions and business groups. And he’s hoping to bypass regular legislative order to get his proposal into law.
It’s part of a concerted effort by Larson and other Democrats to shift the national debate from debt reduction and spending cuts to jobs and economic stimulus, coming as President Barack Obama unveils his own jobs plan in a prime-time speech tonight.
But Larson’s proposal is already meeting resistance, among Republicans who say it’s unnecessary and skeptics who say the super committee already has very a full plate.
Larson, a 1st District Democrat and chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, has introduced three different versions of his legislation, all of which would fast-track a jobs bill through Congress and link that action with the work of the existing special committee on debt reduction.
That debt reduction committee–a bipartisan, bicameral 12 member panel–was created last month when Congress passed legislation to lift the debt ceiling. As part of the agreement to increase the nation’s borrowing capacity, Congress created the special committee tasked with cutting federal deficits by $1.5 trillion over the next decade.
The panel can consider a range of options, from raising taxes to reducing entitlement benefits to cutting domestic and defense spending. They have to agree on a package by Nov. 23, and it will be subject to a full House and Senate vote-with no chance for amendment or filibuster-before Christmas. If Congress doesn’t adopt the package, automatic across-the-board spending cuts will take effect-an unpalatable outcome for both parties.
Larson’s legislative proposals call for either adding job creation to the special committee’s agenda, or creating a second super committee to focus exclusively on jobs. Any jobs package would move under the same rules, vote schedule, and consequences as the debt-reduction measure. Larson says a super committee on jobs is a natural extension of the debt committee.
“Job creation equals deficit reduction,” Larson said. “I think in order to achieve the goals that the select committee has … job creation and economic growth has got to become part of their mission statement.”
If more people get back to work, that will boost tax revenues flowing into federal coffers, which will in turn improve the nation’s budget outlook, Larson noted. He pointed to a Congressional Budget Office report which predicted that if the unemployment rate, now at 9.1 percent, is reduced to 5.5 percent, that would reduce the deficit by 25 percent.
“Can you name any other item that does that singularly?” Larson asked. “This could be the largest way to reduce the deficit and also achieve what the American people want.”
At least one member of the super committee is receptive to Larson’s idea. “It’s an idea we should very, very seriously consider,” said Sen. Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat who, as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, will be a key player in the panel’s work. He said jobs and debt-reduction go “part and parcel together.”
But Republicans aren’t about to sign off on anything that might provide a glide path for a second stimulus package, especially one that increases-instead of reduces-federal spending. They’re already girding to oppose any sweeping infrastructure proposals that Obama might outline in his jobs speech tonight.
“If what the president is looking at, and what Rep. Larson seems to be talking about, is more of the same failed stimulus government spending, then that’s certainly not something that we or the American people are interested in,” said Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
Steel said that Larson’s proposal is misguided and unneeded.
“I think it represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of the joint committee,” he said, arguing that the super committee will be spurring job creation just by reining in the federal budget. “Reducing the deficit and debt is part of the effort to get our economy growing again and create jobs,” Steel said.
Republican members of the super committee offered a similar view. “The goal of the Joint Select Committee as it was established by Congress – reducing the deficit – is key to a pro-jobs approach,” said Alexa Marrero, a spokesman for Rep. Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican and member of the super committee. “Jobs are the central focus.”
So Republicans say deficit reduction will spur job creation. And Democrats say job creation will spur deficit reduction. With such diametrically opposing views of how to get started on those two goals, it’s no wonder that some think adding a jobs mandate to the debt panel’s agenda is unworkable.
“I admire the guy for doing it, but the super committee is just jammed,” said Ron Haskins, an economic studies fellow at the Brookings Institution and former White House and congressional staffer. “The super committee already has too much to do. I’m not sure they can take this on.”
Haskins agreed that the issues of jobs and debt-reduction are deeply intertwined. And he said there’s already been significant shift in the political debate, with the stalled economy beginning to overshadow the ballooning debt.
“I think as compared with a month ago or even two weeks ago, there are a lot more people who think we need stimulus and that we shouldn’t be cutting in the next 12 months,” he said. “In a completely rational world, you could imagine [Congress] would agree on some stimulus, probably less than what the president proposes, for the first year or so,” he said. And then let the deficit reduction package kick in two or three years from now.
But Haskins said such a grand bargain seems out of reach right now. He said it’s more realistic to hope the special committee will delay the start date for any debt-reduction measures for at least a year–and consider that something of a stimulus.
There’s already deep uncertainty about whether the debt-reduction committee will be able to find consensus on $1.5 trillion in debt reduction. Adding a job-creation package–whether it includes tax incentives, infrastructure spending, or other items–will only complicate the political task already laid at the super committee’s doorstep.
“It’s one more thing to argue and fight about if you add the stimulus in,” Haskins said.
Besides, Congress could take up the jobs issue on a separate, regular-order track. “Never mind the super committee,” he said. Congress should hold hearings on Obama’s jobs plan, have a robust debate about it, and then vote.
Larson said that would be his preference too. But in this hyper-partisan climate, fast-track rules and bitter consequences are needed to get anything through.
His own bill on the super committee is a perfect example. If it went through the normal process, “it would be sent to so many committees that it couldn’t possibly be reported out it” in time for final action in this Congress.
So how does he plan to get his proposal adopted? He said he’s lobbying the super committee members to adopt the mandate, without a formal House and Senate vote. Or if the panel would rather go with his alternative proposals-establishing a second parallel committee or a subcommittee–Larson said he hopes they will seek unanimous agreement from congressional leaders to put that in place.
“We want to see something achieved,” Larson said, “and if you can’t do it in regular order, then this committee will provide an opportunity for an up-or-down vote.”