SALT LAKE CITY — If Congress agrees to raise the debt ceiling before Aug. 2, avoiding a default that experts say could spell disaster for the economy, months will pass before Americans learn how the accompanying deficit reduction will actually take shape.
The specifics won't be hammered out by President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner in a back room. Instead, those decisions will fall to a handful of committees in the Senate and House that are still obscure to most Americans.
Which explains why a senator from one of the least populous states in the union currently wields so much power. And why Sen. Orrin Hatch, if re-elected in 2012, could become the most powerful politician to ever come out of Utah.
Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., is the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, which will give shape to any deficit-reduction measures emerging from Congress with a tax component or instructions to reform Medicaid, Medicare or Social Security. Hatch is the top Republican on the committee, and come 2013 he stands to assume the chairmanship if Republicans gain control of the Senate. He's already using that possibility, and the benefits it could bring to Utah, as an argument for re-election in what many think will be a surprisingly tough campaign. Whether it's an effective argument for an entrenched incumbent to ameliorate populist tea-party anger remains to be seen.
"There's an enormous amount of potential influence Hatch could tout," said Kelly Patterson, director of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at BYU. "The question is whether or not it resonates well, and that has a lot to do with the issue environment at the time."
Of course, re-election is no sure shot for Hatch. He may face a formidable intraparty challenge from Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a general election showdown with Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson, or both.
"Seniority only matters if you vote right, and I just think Senator Hatch has been on the wrong side of too many votes," Chaffetz said. "He claims to be the champion of fighting for a balanced budget, but 26 times he has voted for or allowed a debt-ceiling increase. I've got a problem with that. … The biggest problems that our country is facing now are in many ways directly tied to Senator Hatch."
If Hatch does in fact come to chair the Finance Committee, he will not be the first Utahn to do so. That distinction belongs to Sen. Reed Smoot, the LDS apostle who served as chairman of the committee from 1922 to 1932 — including the first few years of the Great Depression.
"Smoot was very powerful," said David C. Gessel, author of the Reed Smoot entry in the Utah History Encyclopedia and vice president of government relations for Utah Hospitals and Health Systems Association. "In fact, he was probably the most powerful senator Utah has ever had because of being the chair of the Senate Finance Committee. … (But) now the agenda of the committee is even broader than it was during Smoot's time."
Today the Senate Finance Committee holds the keys to the most pressing issues driving the debate over how to shrink $14.3 trillion in national debt: tax policy, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and health law, among others.
"The Finance Committee is always important, but at the moment it's crucial," said Doug Holtz-Eakin, former director of the Congressional Budget Office and chief economist of the Council of Economic Advisers during the George W. Bush administration. "Everything that faces us in terms of big problems — in particular exploding debt and the entitlement programs that are driving it — that's the jurisdiction of the Finance Committee."
When Baucus ushered Obamacare into law, the senator not only shaped national policy but also spliced into the bill interests that are keenly important to his home state, said University of Montana political science professor James Lopach.
"In the eventual compromise concerning the health care reform law, Baucus emphasized rural health — providing health services to rural areas," Lopach said. "When he's in the state he visits rural areas, he comments on rural health needs. That's how he's been important."
"The chair of Senate Finance Committee is one of the most powerful positions in Washington," adds Peter Wallison, co-director of American Enterprise Institute's program on financial policy studies. "Senator Baucus was very influential in structuring (Obamacare), but if Senator Hatch had been in that position Obamacare would not have been adopted."
Thomas Mann, senior fellow in governance studies at Brookings Institute, says the Senate Finance Committee is "arguably the most important committee in the Senate." However, he is nonplussed about the practical significance of any Senate committee amid the current political climate.
"Are Senate committees very influential these days? Not especially," Mann says. "The Senate has been turned into such a partisan institution whose primary motivation is permanent campaign. … The institution itself is so partisan, is so subject to filibusters on virtually anything it does, anything that gets accomplished has to be centrally directed, which means the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee is only one among many important players."
To become chair of the Senate Finance Committee, Hatch needs to win re-election in 2012 and hope Republicans gain a majority in the Senate. There are now 51 Democrats, 47 Republicans and two independents who caucus with the Democrats. The Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy estimates the likelihood of a Republican takeover in the Senate next year as 60 percent to 70 percent.
"The Senate Finance Committee is an absolutely powerful committee," Hatch told the Deseret News earlier this year. "I am the Republican leader on the committee, and I intend to take it over in 2013 if the Republicans become the majority — and I think we have a good chance of becoming the majority. There are 23 Democrats up for re-election and only 10 Republicans, so we have a reasonable chance of taking over."
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