The congressional “super committee” on deficit reduction has extraordinary new power to chart the nation's budget and policy decisions for the next decade. What it doesn't have is a meeting room.
Or a staff director. Or clear rules to govern the bipartisan panel that in three months is expected to recommend $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction, a massive undertaking that many are skeptical will succeed.
Think of the new Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction as a congressional pop-up panel. It has fewer than 100 days to resolve some of the most partisan fights over taxes and entitlement policy that have stymied Washington for decades. When it runs out of days, the committee disappears.
With newly appointed lawmakers scrambling to get the committee up and running before it's time to take it down, it has become apparent that Washington's largest budget reform effort in 20 years is being launched on the fly.
“They're in a situation where every day counts,” said Bill Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-founder of the nonpartisan group No Labels. “I hope very much they're not counting the last two weeks of August as breathing space before the real work begins.”
The panel's makeshift nature could be yet another factor that turns an already daunting assignment into the nearly impossible, as lawmakers lack time and resources to achieve their goal. Or the super committee's infrastructural underpinnings could provide the right mix of agility and pressure needed to promote swift agreement.
Giving Congress plenty of time to solve a problem has rarely led to quicker results. The U.S. narrowly averted a crisis over paying its bills this month when the debt ceiling fight went down to the final hours. Congress also took a potential government shutdown to the last day in April before agreeing to a budget deal.
Those debates dragged on because neither Republicans nor Democrats showed an inclination to give ground on issues related to budgets, deficits or debt. Many in Washington expect the super committee to end in a similar standoff, even though it has incentive to compromise: If the committee fails to agree on enough reductions, automatic spending cuts that neither side wants will be triggered. But that wouldn't happen until 2013, allowing plenty of time for more debate.
The first goal of the super committee is modest: Figure out when to meet. By law, the panel must convene by Sept. 16, a requirement included in the deal to increase the debt ceiling. But right after President Obama signed the legislation, Congress left town for its August recess.