With the budget conference committee facing a mid-December deadline to reach a bipartisan deal, the work has shifted to private discussions among various groups of lawmakers.
Expectations for the committee, which held its opening session Wednesday, have been low. But if the panel approaches its task with flexibility and a commitment to achieving results, it has an opportunity to put a framework in place for making substantial progress toward solving our nation’s fiscal challenges.
The conference committee’s most immediate task is to develop a budget for Fiscal 2014, which began Oct. 1. Current funding will run out by Jan. 15. A budget agreement would, in turn, pave the way for a debt limit increase, which will be needed sometime beyond Feb. 7.
As The Concord Coalition explains in a new issue brief, the key fiscal issues are so intertwined that anything beyond a very short-term fix will require some type of “grand bargain” between the parties.
For example, many lawmakers want to relieve the pressure that sequestration is putting on “discretionary” spending (programs that Congress approves on an annual basis).
To avoid increasing the deficit, though, Congress must find corresponding offsets. That would mean new revenues, which Democrats advocate, and cuts in mandatory spending (entitlement programs), which Republicans want. It is hard to imagine any substantial agreement that does not draw from both sources.
The basic question is whether the conference committee can muster enough political will to go beyond the usual partisan rhetoric and crisis-centered fiscal policy to start the country on a more sustainable path.