What's The Supercommittee Up To?

Democratic Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland is a member of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, otherwise known as the supercommittee. The group is working on a plan to reduce the deficit by $1.2 trillion over the next 10 years. Host Audie Cornish gets an update from Van Hollen, who played a major role in Vice President Joe Biden's debt talks earlier this year.

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AUDIE CORNISH, host: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

The clock is ticking on Capitol Hill for the congressional Supercommittee, officially known as the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, to agree on a plan to address the nation's debt. The group has been dubbed the Supercommittee because of its wide-reaching authority over both House and Senate panels, to suggest changes to existing budget and tax rules. The 12-member committee has until Thanksgiving to come up with a plan to reduce the nation's deficit by more than a trillion dollars over the next 10 years.

Democratic Congressman Chris von Hollen, who represents Maryland's 8th District has a seat on that committee. And he joins us from his office on Capitol Hill.

Congressman Von Hollen, welcome to the program.

Representative CHRIS VAN HOLLEN: It's good to be with you.

CORNISH: Congressman, both parties have had fundamentally different takes on the structural causes of debt problem and how to fix it. But what has the presence of the Congressional Budget Office director done to create common ground? Because he's one of the few people who's actually in the room with the Supercommittee during your negotiations.

HOLLEN: Well, I think his testimony made clear that you have two parts to this problem. Part of the issue needs to be dealt with through increased revenue by closing corporate tax loopholes and asking folks at the very top to do more. But the other part is going to require some reforms to some of the health and retirement security programs, to make them stronger and more solvent over the long run. And so it's not an either/or.

And if you look at all of the other bipartisan groups that have looked at this challenge, whether it was Bowle-Simpson, Rivlin-Domenici or the Gang of Six, they came up with the frameworks that addressed both sides of this budget equation.

CORNISH: What more can you tell us about the issue of tax revenues in closing loopholes? We've read that the Supercommittee is struggling to make progress on that particular issue.

HOLLEN: Well, these other groups have all proposed different kinds of tax reform that would both reform the tax code and, in their case, generate revenue. What I can say and I think it's been publicly stated, and we've talked about it in hearings, is that were looking at different models of tax reform. But that doesn't mean that there's agreement on exactly what that tax reform should produce.

In my own view, there are a number of things you can do on tax reform that both simplify the tax code, but also generate important revenue for deficit reduction by shutting down a lot of these egregious loopholes and tax breaks.

CORNISH: Now, back in 1986, the tax overhaul that was done then was a result of two years of work. So why does the committee believe that it can do anything similar in just two months?

HOLLEN: Well, I'm not saying that the committee, the joint committee, is going to be able to dot every I and cross every T on tax reform. I think we'll try and get as far as we can in some areas. But beyond that, it would be possible for the joint committee to instruct the other committees in Congress to pursue tax reform and lay out certain guidelines that should be followed. For example, that we'd want to maintain the progressivity of the current tax code. So you could establish criteria. Again, I'm just talking about one possibility that could be used.

CORNISH: Both Republicans and Democrats have criticized the committee for working behind closed doors. Does it not make it harder to get people on board, if they feel like they haven't had any part of the process?

HOLLEN: Well, I do understand the frustration of many of our members. That's why the legislation established a mechanism for members of Congress and committees to provide input. There was a deadline of early October for committees to make suggestions. Many took advantage of that opportunity, others did not. And at the end of the day, whatever the joint committee comes up with - and I certainly hope that we will come up with something - it will be subject to a full debate.

CORNISH: Why the emphasis on privacy?

HOLLEN: Well, I do believe that given the very polarized political environment, it makes sense for members to have some informal conversations to try to see if they are areas of common ground and compromise. No decisions will be made in private. All of that would happen in open session in a full joint committee markup. That's the way it's laid out. But I do believe that in the very charged political environment, having some informal discussions make sense.

CORNISH: In the end, do you feel that this particular group is going to be able to meet the November 23rd deadline, to provide a proposal?

HOLLEN: Well, that certainly remains our goal. We're working very hard to achieve that. I certainly hope so. It's very clear that the American people have lost a lot of faith in the Congress. I think it would be important that we show that were able to reach these agreements.

Again, we are being asked in a very short period of time to do something that Congress has been unable to do in a longer period of time. And the jury is still out as to whether or not we'll be able to accomplish that goal. I certainly hope so and am working very hard to do that.

CORNISH: Even with - I mean essentially you need seven votes out of 12. That's just one person across the aisle and still you're saying that you can only hope?

HOLLEN: What I'm saying is that we're working hard every day to try to achieve that result.

CORNISH: Democratic Congressman Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, thank you so much for speaking with us.

HOLLEN: Thank you, Audie.

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