Pull out your Uggs-and-leggings combo outfits, brush off your DVD of season 4 of The Mentalist, and turn the volume way up on “Party Rock Anthem” by LMFAO, because if Joe Manchin has his way—and lately, he has—Washington will soon be partying like it’s 2011 again.
As you are no doubt aware, President Joe Biden and most other congressional Democrats have insisted that they are unwilling to negotiate with Republicans on lifting the debt ceiling, everyone’s favorite partisan football-slash-time bomb. The country hit the debt ceiling on Thursday, and while the Treasury Department is employing temporary “extraordinary measures” to keep the country from an unprecedented default, it is up to Congress to increase the ceiling. (Periodic reminder: Raising the limit does not incur new debt but covers spending that Congress has already allocated.)
Republicans say they don’t want to lift the country’s borrowing cap without commensurate cuts in domestic spending. (Both parties have contributed to the ballooning national deficit in recent years.) This idea has, predictably, not been embraced by Democrats, who accuse Republicans of leveraging a potentially catastrophic default in exchange for cuts to entitlement programs.
And this is where Manchin comes in. On Wednesday, the West Virginia senator, live from the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, proposed a solution to this legislative deadlock: bipartisan cooperation on the debt limit and a plan that may sound familiar to those who recall the fiscal fights of 2011. In an interview with Fox Business, Manchin said that he had spoken “briefly” with Speaker Kevin McCarthy about a bill introduced by Senator Mitt Romney that would impanel committees to address the solvency of government trust funds like Social Security, Medicare, and the Highway Trust Fund.
The measure, known as the TRUST Act, has not yet been reintroduced for the new Congress. But it would allow congressional leaders to appoint members to so-called “rescue committees” tasked with finding policy solutions for solvency within 180 days. (Current projections estimate that Medicare will not be able to pay full benefits after 2028, and Social Security after 2035.) Any legislation produced by these committees would be subject to expedited floor procedures for speedy consideration, and would require a 60-vote threshold to pass in the Senate.
“We would put different committees—bipartisan, bicameral committees—together to look at each one of the trusts and come up with solutions of how you fix it,” Manchin said. “We’re not getting rid of anything. And you can’t scare the bejesus out of people saying we’re gonna get rid of Social Security, we’re going to privatize. That’s not going to happen. But we should be able to solidify it so the people who have worked and earned it know they’re gonna get it.”
If all of this is starting to sound vaguely familiar, that’s because this idea is reminiscent of the “supercommittee” created as part of the deal to raise the debt limit in 2011, a bipartisan crew of lawmakers tasked with developing a plan to reduce the deficit. But that committee was “super” in name only; lawmakers failed to reach an agreement, deadlocked over—wait for it!—the Republican desire to cut entitlement programs versus the Democratic hope to raise taxes on the wealthy.
Manchin also pitched the idea of creating a commission similar to the 2010 National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, commonly referred to as the Simpson-Bowles commission: “If we can do that, and we say, OK, we agree to raise the debt ceiling, as long as we agree to identify the debt we have and how we start reducing it.”
The Simpson-Bowles commission formulated a plan to cut the deficit by $4 trillion and addressed the long-term solvency of Social Security, although the proposal never received a vote in Congress. I’ll give you three guesses as to why the Simpson-Bowles recommendations weren’t adopted. (Hint: It’s because Republicans didn’t want increased taxes and Democrats didn’t want spending cuts.)
Manchin’s ideas aren’t without congressional support: In 2021, the Senate passed a version of the trust proposal as a nonbinding amendment on Democrats’ budget resolution, with support from all Republicans and 21 Democrats. It also had companion legislation in the House in the previous Congress. (Simpson and Bowles endorsed the TRUST Act when it was introduced by Romney and a slew of bipartisan co-sponsors in 2021.)
But polarization has only worsened over the past decade, and McCarthy will need to maintain control of a fractious conference with a conservative faction willing to take an extremely hard line to get their way. A supercommittee sequel or a Simpson-Bowles-style commission may not satisfy those who say they will not raise the debt ceiling under any circumstances.
When I asked Shai Akabas, the director of economic policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center, about how Congress should address both the debt ceiling and reining in the deficit, he said that members of Congress needed to have actual, serious conversations on fiscal policy. “I don’t think we need a supercommittee, I think we need grown-ups. I think we need people who are ready to talk about the issues and figure out where we can reach a compromise,” Akabas said.
Manchin’s frequent insistence on the power of bipartisanship has frustrated members of his own party, although the West Virginia senator notched a few wins in the last Congress to solidify his vision of across-the-aisle accomplishments. But just as the sequel to The Fast and The Furious failed to capture the magic of the original, 2 Super 2 Committee would lack even the groundwork of success to build upon. Congress steadfastly refuses to learn any lesson from bringing the country to the brink of default every two years or so, and it’s unclear enough has changed in the last decade for methods that failed in 2010 and 2011 to work this time around.