The “Budget Control Act of 2011” (BCA) contains provisions for a joint committee of Congress, whose supposed job it is to make recommendations to reduce the deficit by $1.5 trillion. But the legislation does not require the joint committee to do that job. It is merely a “goal” of the joint committee to recommend at least $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction, but even if the committee fails to do so, the Congress will give expedited consideration anyway to whatever is in the joint committee bill. The Congressional Budget Office letter of August 1, 2011 scoring the legislation noted that the joint committee is merely “charged with the goal of reducing the deficit by at least $1.5 trillion between 2012 and 2021.”
We know that proposing $1.5 trillion is the intended job of the joint committee, because a slide from Speaker Boehner’s office (marked “Updated: July 31, 10:35 pm EST”) says the agreed-on framework “creates a 12-member Joint Committee required to report legislation by November 23, 2011 that would produce a proposal to reduce the deficit by at least $1.5T over 10 years.”
But sometime between the Speaker’s slide at 10:35 p.m. and the House Legislative Counsel’s draft of the “Budget Control Act of 2011” (marked “August 1, 2011 (12:04 p.m.)” and posted on the House Rules Committee Website) somebody made the decision that the joint committee does not actually need to propose $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction. Because the actual legislation does not require the joint committee bill to recommend $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction for the bill to get expedited consideration in Congress.
To be sure, section 401(b)(2) of the BCA says “[t]he goal of the joint committee shall be to reduce the deficit by at least $1,500,000,000,000 over the period of fiscal years 2012 to 2021.” But the provisions with respect to the joint committee that matter — the provisions giving the joint committee recommendations expedited consideration in the two Houses of Congress — are not tied to that goal. Section 401(a)(2) defines “joint committee bill” to mean “a bill consisting of the proposed legislative language of the joint committee recommended under subsection (b)(3)(B) and introduced under section 402(a).” Neither section 401(b)(3)(B) nor section 402(a) incorporates the statutory goal of a least $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction, so a bill recommended by the joint committee and introduced under the legislation can qualify as a “joint committee bill,” which gets expedited consideration in the House and the Senate, even if the joint committee bill does not recommend $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction.
If conservatives want the benefit of the bargain that the congressional leaders say they struck, they should at least seek an amendment to section 401(b)(3)(B)(i) to insert before the semicolon “, and meets the goal set forth in paragraph 401(b)(2)”. The BCA is bad legislation, but it is even worse than it appears.
The joint committee process is yet another promise by Congress that it will get spending under control — just not now, but rather some time in the future, always in the future. To avoid a debt ceiling crisis, the leaders of Congress have agreed to pretend that the joint committee process will yield further deficit reduction of at least $1.5 trillion. But they do not even do a good job of pretending. Their legislation gives the joint committee bill expedited consideration in Congress whether it recommends $1.5 trillion in cuts or not.