For Capitol Hill veterans, the bipartisan committee created this week to cut the deficit by $1.5 trillion dollars brings back memories of the 2005 commission that spurred a round of military base closings across the United States.
Lawmakers established both panels to make the kinds of tough choices that congressional committee members, who had vested interests in the issues at hand, could not make themselves. It is, by no means, an easy job. Indeed, the best outcome for the so-called super committee—and the Base Realignment and Closure Commission before it—is to convince lawmakers to go along with their recommendations, no matter how difficult or painful.
Lawmakers and pundits have referenced the BRAC panel numerous times in recent weeks to explain the work of the super committee. “If you’re looking for an analogy, think of the base-closing legislation of a few years ago,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Sunday on CBS’s Face the Nation.
Here are a few of the similarities and differences between the two panels.
Both committees are bipartisan, but the selection the members differs widely. Then-President George W. Bush appointed all nine BRAC commissioners with input from party leaders in both chambers. This time around, the White House has no control over who will sit on the super committee. The Congressional party leaders will be the ones selecting panel members.
Likewise, the makeup of the super committee is different. Lawmakers, many of whom have bases in their districts, insulated themselves from base closings—and prevented member-on-member warfare—by banning any current members of Congress from sitting on BRAC. By contrast, 12 lawmakers—six from each chamber—will sit on the super committee, making the panel members more politically vulnerable.
BRAC also had an odd number of commissioners, a move set up to prevent a deadlock. The commission also required a super majority of seven votes to add any installation to the Pentagon’s closure list. The super committee has a dozen members, equally divided by the two parties, and requires only a simply majority to approve their recommendations—a recipe for deadlock.
BRAC was required to conduct public hearings in Washington and around the country. Public input, all documentation, analysis, and internal discussions wer posted on the commission’s website. In short, every move the commission made—and every letter it read—was public.
It is unclear just how open the super committee’s proceedings will be. The legislation says the panel “may” hold hearings—and, if it does, it must announce them seven days in advance. But the legislation does not require documentation and other internal proceedings to be made public. It’s a safe assumption that much of the decision making—and the wheeling and dealing—will take place behind closed doors.
BRAC received the Pentagon’s list of recommended base closures on May 13, 2005, and had to report its own proposal back to the White House by September 8. That gave commissioners less than four months to review thousands of pages of documents, sift through public input, and tour bases around the country before coming up with their final report.
Members of the super committee, who have not yet been chosen, must vote on their deficit-cutting recommendations by November 23. That gives them an equally truncated time frame for which to review and debate sizable cuts to federal spending and potential tax increases.
As with BRAC, lawmakers will not have an opportunity to amend or tweak the super committee’s recommendations. Members of both chambers will have to decide whether to accept or reject the recommendations in their entirety.
“Having the up-or-down vote by Congress … levels the playing field tremendously relative to the recommendations,” said Paul Hirsch, a staffer on the 1991 base-closure commission and lobbyist during the 2005 BRAC round. “It also brings some governance to the commission that what they’re going to propose, while it will be deep cuts, won’t be something that is so beyond the pale that … members of both houses won’t accept it.”
But there is one key difference in the two votes. For BRAC, lawmakers once again protected themselves by requiring only a vote to reject—rather than accept—the commission’s findings. Lawmakers, in effect, didn’t have to approve the base closings. They just had to vote not to reject it. By comparison, lawmakers will vote up or down on the super committee’s report, stripping them of some of the political protection members value.
If the House rejected the final BRAC report, the bases on the list would have remained open. In short, nothing would change—except the Defense Department would not reap the billions of dollars it had planned to save by shuttering many of its installations.
If the super committee fails, the consequences are much more dire. Failure would trigger a $1.2 trillion across-the-board cut. The Pentagon would shoulder roughly half of those cuts, a scenario that senior leaders have already said is unmanageable and even dangerous. The Defense Department would be forced to furlough thousands of employees and scale back programs—not to mention what would happen across the rest of the government.
“If that happens, it could trigger a round of dangerous across-the-board defense cuts that would do real damage to our security, our troops and their families, and our ability to protect the nation,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta wrote in a lengthy letter circulated on Wednesday to Defense Department personnel. But Panetta stressed that the cut, or “trigger,” is meant to force both parties to negotiate to find the requisite savings. “It is designed to be unpalatable to spur responsible, balanced deficit reduction and avoid misguided cuts to our security,” he wrote.