Judd Gregg: The Silver Lining

Judd Gregg, a former Republican senator from New Hampshire, served as chairman of the Senate Budget Committee from 2005 to 2007 and ranking member from 2007 to 2011. He recently wrote an op-ed featured in The Hill. It is reposted here.

Good news.  

There is today — right now — a bipartisan working group headed by Sens. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) that is trying to straighten out our nation’s finances.

This group is meeting regularly, and those meetings are well-attended by numerous senators from both parties. The senators are discussing substantive and effective changes that would help address the national debt and the incongruities of the Congressional budget.

If they should succeed by producing bipartisan proposals, they would have made a tremendous contribution to the future well-being of the country.

Can they accomplish this? The answer is yes.  

They even have a template to use — the Simpson-Bowles undertaking.

The Simpson-Bowles Commission arose in 2010 out of a bipartisan desire to address the national debt. It was originally supposed to followed the path blazed by the Base Realignment and Closure Act, or BRAC.   

BRAC was the brainchild of then-Rep. Richard Armey (R-Texas).

As the Cold War ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was obvious that our military infrastructure was too large for a post-Soviet world. But reducing the infrastructure proved impossible for Congress. Every member felt a deep political obligation to defend and keep open the military installations in his or her district. Closing any military facility, no matter how outdated or anachronistic it was, became virtually impossible.

Then Armey stepped forward with his creative and effective idea of BRAC commissions. 

These commissions — over the years there were five different ones — had the authority to look at all military installations and determine which should stay open, which should be closed and which should be downsized or significantly changed. 

Then the real genius of BRAC kicked in. The commissions were required to package together all their recommended base closings. Congress had to vote up or down on the entire package — no amendments allowed — within a strict timeframe. 

This meant that members could not hide behind the passage or failure of an amendment in order to claim they could not vote for the package. It also meant that if the bill passed, real action would occur and the defense structure of the nation would be improved dramatically. 

All the BRAC reports passed. It was a rare display of constructive governance that fixed a large problem and jumped over the politics that had stood in the way of reform.

The original Simpson-Bowles proposal would have taken the BRAC approach to the entire federal fiscal house.

All spending (discretionary and entitlement) and all tax policy would have been reviewed, with the primary goal being putting the federal budget on a path to solvency by limiting the rate of growth of the national debt. The approach, as with BRAC, would have been bipartisan in nature and would have required one up-or-down vote on the entire package without amendments.  

Unfortunately the bill failed in the Senate, even though it originally had enough sponsors to get to 60 votes.

This failure had grave effects. Instead of being undertaken pursuant to a law like BRAC, Simpson-Bowles went forward simply as a presidential commission.  

It was successful in producing a product. It set forth a bipartisan agreement that would have put the nation’s finances on the road to stability. 

It proposed that our debt-to-GDP ratio should not exceed 70 percent and that the great majority of the reduction in the deficit should come from controlling spending. It had both conservative and liberal support. 

But because Simpson-Bowles was not a law requiring action, its proposals were not instituted, even though some component parts of the proposals were subsequently passed.

It remains, however, the best effort ever undertaken to truly get at the issues that are driving up our national debt — a pattern which will, in the not too distant future, put our nation’s fiscal fabric at severe risk.

It is still a very viable approach.    

Congress needs a vehicle which allows it to work in a bipartisan manner on complex and politically charged problems like healthcare spending (specifically Medicare and Medicaid), entitlements generally, and major tax reform.  

A BRAC-type approach is a strong and effective option.

As this working group of sincere and dedicated senators looks around for a procedure that gets past the chaos of the present system, they should consider returning to this approach.  

It is a silver lining of opportunity waiting in the dark clouds of fiscal unsustainability that are headed our way. 

The reality is that we simply must do something to slow the growth of our national debt.

"My Views" are works published by members of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, but they do not necessarily reflect the opinions of all members of the committee.