As his campaign struggles to gain momentum in the 2012 GOP primary, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has focused much of his criticism on the so-called super committee, the 12-member panel tasked with finding $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction as part of the recently passed debt ceiling deal. "I think this super committee is about as dumb an idea as Washington has come up with in my lifetime," Gingrich said during the GOP presidential debate last week. Blasting the idea as secretive and politically motivated, he said Congress should scrap it and "go back to regular legislative business. Assign every subcommittee the task of finding savings." [Vote Now: Who Won the Debt Ceiling Standoff? ]
But while Gingrich is a fan of regular legislative order now, during his reign as speaker of the House in the 1990s, he was famous for using creating own committees to work outside of the normal procedure. It's just that back then, they weren't called "super committees," they were called "task forces." As speaker, Gingrich commissioned several special congressional task forces to push through the party's "Contract With America" agenda without too much interference from the traditionally powerful committee chairs. This provoked many of the same complaints which are being lobbed at the super committee now, especially charges of politically motivated and secretive lawmaking. As Congressional historian Walter Oleszek noted in a 1999 Congressional Research Service report, task force members were normally picked by Gingrich and his team. When Gingrich convened a "Design Group" to craft Medicare legislation, Virginia Republican Rep. Thomas Biley claimed "This bill, right from the start, was written in the speaker's office." [See a slideshow of Newt Gingrich's career.]
To be fair, there are differences between Gingrich's "task forces" and the "super committee." Perhaps most importantly, none of those "task forces" had special procedural rights to force up-or-down votes on legislation, as the "super committee" does. If Congress doesn't pass the so-called super committee's plan, then the debt ceiling law will automatically trigger $1.2 trillion in across-the board cuts--another difference from Gingrich's process. As he put it, "They're going to walk in and say, we can shoot you in the head, or cut off your right leg. Which do you prefer?"
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