'Triggers' In Debt Ceiling Legislation Have Precedent

The debt ceiling deal brokered by Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell and Vice President Joe Biden leaves a second round of cuts to be determined by a bipartisan committee. But, as a way of ensuring that cuts will be made, across the board spending cuts would be triggered by the committee's failure to accomplish its goals. The last time Congress used a mechanism like this was in the Gramm-Rudman act of 1985. Michele Norris talks with Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget president Maya MacGuineas about how that worked out — and how the triggers in today's legislation compare.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host: Now that the debt ceiling has been officially raised, we want to explore the part of the new law that's supposed to force corresponding spending cuts. The law requires a bipartisan committee to come up with one and a half trillion dollars in cuts by November.

But even if they don't, spending will still be slashed. The committee's failure would trigger deep cuts in the military and Medicare. And the key word there is trigger. That provision, known as triggers, has been called a Sword of Damocles that now hangs over the process.

Joining us now is Maya MacGuineas. She's the president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a bipartisan organization dedicated to public education. Welcome to the program.

Dr. MAYA MACGUINEAS: Thanks for having me.

NORRIS: Now, tell us about the precedent for using triggers in legislation.

MACGUINEAS: Well, budgetary triggers have a long and somewhat checkered history here in the U.S. Probably the first important trigger was introduced in the mid-1980s as part of the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings legislation that was supposed to reduce the deficit. And the way that this worked is that there were deficit targets each year. And if we didn't meet them there would be a broad-based sequester or spending cut that was supposed to go into place and help us get to those proposed deficit levels.

As it turned out, sometimes they worked; sometimes, not so much. There were a number of times when Congress either bypass the legislation or actually change the markers so that they were able to stay within the savings targets that they'd laid out for themselves.

NORRIS: Well, let's dig into Gramm-Rudman-Hollings a little bit. Some cuts were made in that case, but Congress did find a way to get around it. What was that go-around in this case?

MACGUINEAS: Well, you could override the trigger. So they had one where it was overridden and one where they changed the targets. So there's always going to be flexibility. Congress can never bind itself and he can never bind future Congresses into a way that it really can't get around.

I think one of the lessons of Gramm-Rudman was that the trigger exempted a lot of different policies. So Social Security wasn't part of the trigger. Revenues weren't part of the trigger. And it's exactly the same makeup of a trigger and that is in this new budget legislation that was part of the debt ceiling increase. So a lot of things are exempted.

NORRIS: In this case, the trigger seems like it's like an old-fashioned duel, that it would actually affect both sides - that both sides would actually face some sort of sanction if theses spending cuts weren't made. How is that different if the triggers are sort of pointed at opposite parties? Did that happen with the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings triggers? Or is this something else that's altogether different?

MACGUINEAS: No, these triggers are actually reasonably similar to what we saw in Gramm-Rudman-Hollings. And I think that the argument, the logic here is that nobody will want these triggers to be pulled because both sides have a vested interest in avoiding them.

One of the big frictions was should taxes be included? And in the end they weren't but the trigger would hit Defense very aggressively. And I think the thinking is that a lot of folks, and in particular a lot of Republicans, who would've objected to a tax trigger also would want to see a Defense trigger go off. And the hope is that will bring people to the table.

NORRIS: In this case, we have this supercommittee, this new Gang of 12...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

NORRIS: ...that will oversee this process in the next. If a trigger is enacted or if there is a decision to work one's way around a trigger, what role does the committee play in that? Who makes that decision?

MACGUINEAS: Well, the first step will be whether the committee comes up with the savings that it's supposed to, which would mean the trigger would never be pulled. If they failed to come up with a proposal or if the proposals aren't adopted, then the trigger will hit but not for another year. And I think this is really an important point. That trigger wouldn't kick in until the end of 2012, which just so happens to be after the election.

NORRIS: When lawmakers found ways around the triggers that were used in Gramm-Rudman-Hollings did the public notice? Did anyone cry foul?

MACGUINEAS: The problem, of course, is that these are so complicated, I don't think most people would even know exactly what's getting talked about. Budget triggers is not something that really is a kitchen table discussion. What people will notice is whether our deficits are getting smaller. I worry that it just become so technical, it feels like Washington speak that you don't have that march in Washington of people saying: Pull the trigger, pull the trigger. It just probably doesn't play out that way.

NORRIS: I don't know. Maybe that's an invitation that we might do that...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

NORRIS: ...eventually where people are saying pull the trigger.

MACGUINEAS: If we could get a million person march here in Washington for something on fiscal responsibility, I would be thrilled. My job would be done.

NORRIS: Maya MacGuineas, good to talk to you. Thank you very much.

MACGUINEAS: Thanks so much.

NORRIS: Maya MacGuineas is the president of the Committee for Responsible Federal Budget.

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