The Budget Control Act creates a Joint Committee whose goal is to recommend legislation that will reduce the deficit by $1.8 T over the next ten years.

Many are predicting that, like many other special fiscal committees and commissions before them, this one will deadlock, resulting in triggered automatic spending cuts in discretionary spending and Medicare.

This reasonable prediction results from the structure of the Committee:

  • Speaker Boehner and Leaders Pelosi, Reid, and McConnell each appoint 3 Members (of the House or Senate) for a total of 12 on the Committee;
  • you need a majority (7 of 12) to make recommendations.

Each of the four leaders represents a partisan caucus. Each caucus has a political center of gravity that leans toward its wing. If “the other side” can pick off just one of the six appointees of your party, they can run the table. These factors create an incentive for each leader to choose reliable Members who are closer to the wing of the party than the middle, and thereby decrease the chance for a negotiated agreement.

I can think of two other structures for a Joint Committee that could have been written into law and would have a much greater chance of reaching a solution. There may be others.

At this point it’s too late to enact a law implementing a new structure. But since the deficit reduction goal is woefully insufficient compared to the problem to be solved, there will be additional opportunities in the future.

I won’t go so far as to say I am recommending either of these structures, but if possible I would like at least to inject the ideas into the public debate.

A center-out structure

  • Speaker Boehner and Leaders Pelosi, Reid, and McConnell each get 4 Members (of the House or Senate) for a total of 16 on the Committee;
  • Two of each leader’s selections must be from the other party;
  • you need a majority (9 of 16) to make recommendations.

In this structure you might expect Leader McConnell to pick two reliable conservatives along with Senators Lieberman and Ben Nelson. (Lieberman is an independent but caucuses with Democrats.) Leader Reid would likely pick two reliable liberals along with one of the Maine Republican Senators or maybe one of the Republicans in the Gang of Six.

This structure would likely result in three rough groupings: a center of 8, a liberal block of 4, and a conservative block of 4.  With nine votes needed for a majority it’s easy to imagine several different winning coalitions. The chance of a majority recommendation would go way up.

This structure would be likely to lead to a roughly centrist or at least politically balanced solution.

A gamble structure



  • Speaker Boehner and Leaders Pelosi, Reid, and McConnell each get 4 Members of their choosing;
  • any subset of
    [4? 5? 6?] or more members can make a recommendation as long as CBO certifies it meets the Committee’s deficit reduction goal;
  • members can support more than one recommendation;
  • in February 2013 the next President chooses which of these recommendation takes effect. He must choose one of the recommendations and cannot make changes. His choice immediately implements that recommendation.
  • This structure will make many insiders catch their breath. This is, in effect, an all-or-nothing gamble. It is guaranteed to solve the Committee’s defined problem, since each Committee Member has an incentive to form a coalition and get an option on the table for the next President.

    It would also flush people out. You’d have to make a CBO-certified proposal for it to be available to the President. Democrats could no longer do what they have been doing for a while, attacking Republican plans without offering their own solution.

    While the center-out structure is likely to produce a centrist bargain/compromise, the gamble structure could result in a very liberal or quite conservative outcome. You could have an all-tax increase recommendation, or one which cuts only liberal spending priorities, as well as more balanced or compromise proposals. In this structure I think the 2012 election would become entirely about the choices presented by the Committee.

    Would you be willing to take this gamble? The alternative is likely a continued stalemate.

    (photo credit: Rob)