Federal Relations

August 1, 2011

Finally-A Final Debt Deal

The framework for a final deal to raise the debt ceiling is finally on the table.  The House and Senate will continue working today with a goal of pushing a bill through both chambers by tonight.  The leadership of both parties in both chambers have also agreed to commence their August recess as soon as the bill is approved. 

The following is a summary of the final deal:

Debt Ceiling Increase:  The current $14.3 trillion ceiling on total federal borrowing would be increased by an amount sufficient to allow the Treasury Department to operate beyond the 2012 election and into 2013.  That would be accomplished in two steps.  The debt limit would be increased by $900 billion immediately.  Then, a second increase of between $1.2 trillion and $1.5 trillion would be available at the President’s request.  However, exactly how that would happen is unclear.  Earlier measures would have provided an immediate increase and phased additional increases that would be subject to a congressional resolution of disapproval.  To block a debt limit increase, such a resolution would presumably have to be enacted over the President’s veto, requiring two-thirds majority votes in both chambers.

Spending Cuts — Round One:  An immediate reduction in the deficit of roughly $1 trillion over 10 years would be enacted.  Most details have not been made public, but such a cut would probably be accomplished through specific caps on appropriations for each year from FY12 through FY21.  The agreement is expected to set discretionary spending caps of $1.043 trillion for FY12 and $1.047 trillion for FY13, with a “firewall” between defense and non-defense spending — meaning domestic accounts could not be raided to bump up security spending.  The amount for FY12 is about $24 billion larger than the amount approved by the House-adopted budget resolution.  It is unclear if the House will adjust their appropriations bills to account for the higher number (not likely).

Spending Cuts — Round Two:  A special joint committee would be created to recommend specific ways to reduce the deficit by an additional $1.8 trillion by 2021.  This committee, composed of three Democrats and three Republicans from each chamber, was a part of earlier plans from both parties.  The panel would report its recommendations to both chambers, and the recommendations would be subject to up-or-down votes without amendment.  Earlier versions required the committee to report by November 23rd and required the House and Senate to act by December 23rd.  Presumably all aspects of the federal budget will be on the table, including entitlement cuts and revenue increases.  It is not clear if the committee will be specifically authorized to consider an overhaul of the tax code.

Enforcement Triggers for Panel’s Recommendations:  If the enacted recommendations from the joint committee do not produce at least $1.2 trillion in savings, a process for automatic spending cuts would be triggered that is similar to the system of spending “sequesters” enacted as part of the 1985 Gramm-Rudman anti-deficit law and the 1997 deficit-reduction law.  Any sequester would be equal to the portion of the $1.2 trillion savings target that was not achieved.  It would apparently fall equally on defense and non-defense accounts, including some entitlement spending.  Programs targeting low-income individuals and families would largely be exempt from the sequester, as they were under Gramm-Rudman.  Medicare cuts would be restricted to no more than 2 percent of the program’s outlays, and would only affect payments to providers, not to beneficiaries.  The idea is to provide a strong incentive for the committee not to deadlock in trying to make recommendations and for the two chambers to enact them.  Democrats did not win agreement to incorporate a tax increase as part of the enforcement trigger mechanism.

Entitlement Cuts:  The special joint committee is likely to look closely at entitlement spending to achieve its deficit reduction goals.  This could very likely include changes to the Pell Grant program.  Those spending cuts would be subject to tough negotiations over the next four or five months.  As noted, if a sequester is triggered to enforce mandated spending cuts later this year, some restricted automatic cuts in Medicare spending might occur.  It is unclear what other entitlement spending might be subject to a sequester.

Taxes:  The plan does not include any immediate increase in revenue, although the joint deficit-reduction committee may consider several forms of revenue increases.  Earlier in the negotiations, the House Speaker proposed an increase of $800 billion in revenue.  Such an increase might come either from the elimination of tax breaks or by not renewing the Bush-era tax cuts for high-earners, or both.  In addition, a comprehensive overhaul of the tax code might be structured to yield a net revenue increase.

Balanced-Budget Amendment:  The plan requires both the House and the Senate to vote on a proposed balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution by the end of the year.  Unlike the proposal approved by the House last week, lawmakers would not have to adopt this amendment — and send it to the states for ratification — for the debt limit increase to take effect.