Congress and the Ulysses Solution: When Tying Your Hands Can Work; And When It Doesn’t
The sequester is in place despite Congress providing itself an expedited process meant to stave off these indiscriminate and draconian across-the-board cuts. Back in 2011, when congressional Republicans insisted on substantial spending cuts as the price of increasing the debt ceiling, the President and Speaker Boehner tried to reach a “grand bargain”. After failing in that endeavor, the White House and Congress agreed to the Budget Control Act (BCA) in August of that year. It established a “Super Committee,” which was given an express lane for enacting $1.2 trillion in budget cuts and revenue.
If the Super Committee didn’t succeed, and Congress found no other way to enact the savings, a $1.2 trillion sequester would go into effect in 1½ years’ time. The threat of drastic cuts in defense and domestic spending was meant to be an action forcing mechanism—sequestration was expected to be much more painful than any conceivable deal reached by the Super Committee.
The Super Committee failed, and the sequester was set to take effect on January 2 this year, and finally took effect on March 1. This debacle not only increased public scorn for Congress but raises the question of why the deadlines and the prospect of drastic across-the-board cuts didn’t produce the intended consequence.
The answer: look to the ancient Greeks
Mythology is instructive here. Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey relates how Ulysses, sailing home from the Trojan War, was warned about the Island of the Sirens. These Sirens would sing songs so alluring that his crew inevitably would sail toward them, but would drown as their ships crashed against the surrounding rocks. The only solution was to plug their ears, which Ulysses ordered, while instructing that he be tied to the mast and his orders disregarded until they were clear of the island. This was done, and the tempting dangers were averted.
The model: when individual desire is about to trump the common good, the decision maker must tie his hands behind his back to avoid disastrous results.
The BRAC experience
Congress actually has used the Ulysses solution successfully. At the end of the Cold War, lawmakers enacted legislation creating the Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC) providing that an independent commission would set forth a list of military bases to be closed, and that Congress could not amend the list and was required to vote the whole package up or down. That system has succeeded through five rounds of base closure. The reasons why are instructive and also tell us why the Super Committee gambit didn’t work.
The keys to self-binding are immediacy and personal impact. Ulysses knew that if he somehow unshackled himself he would be doomed not in some indeterminate future but almost immediately. He and his sailors also knew that it would be themselves that would be doomed. Similarly with BRAC, the only members who would want to undo the list dealt them by the Commission would be those few members whose districts lost a valuable military facility. All the other members with bases could simply breathe a sigh of relief. They had every incentive to enforce the deal and none to undo it lest their own bases get closed if there were to be a re-do.
Why the threat of sequestration didn’t work
Contrast this with the BCA arrangement. While the logic was that the committee would somehow reach an agreement lest they crash upon the rocks of harsh across-the-board spending cuts affecting the entire government (except for entitlements), the sequester was no Island of the Sirens. First, it wouldn’t happen for over a year. More importantly, there were no personal consequences for any Super Committee members regardless of their actions on the committee.
Coming to an agreement might have been good policy, but it wouldn’t have prevented bad things from happening to them politically. On the other hand, the sequester may hurt the economy, but it doesn’t necessarily hurt the key decision makers more than anyone else. Indeed, maintaining their own ideological and policy preferences was less costly to them personally than failing to reach a deal.
In short, the sequester was intended to be so awful that it would force action, but it is the economy and federal workers who are dashed against the Island of the Sirens, and they didn’t even get to hear the music.