In truth, the so-called supercommittee was pushed and pulled in dozens of directions. It was this background noise of partisan politics and ideology that stuck a spear in the heart of the effort.
The supercommittee structure, it was hoped, might insulate members from the heat that normally accompanied any grand bargain. The supercommittee could have done for deficit-reduction what the base-closing process did for post-Cold War draw-down of military installations. That is to say, it sought to bypass Washington’s usual style of doing business in order to favor decisions based on reason and empirical evidence. The base-closing process isn’t perfect, but it’s superior to leaving the nation’s defense needs to raw politics.
The foundations of the supercommittee weren’t bad. The 12 lawmakers had a choice: Reduce the deficit by $1.2 trillion before Thanksgiving or face $1 trillion in automatic cuts that slash domestic and defense spending starting in 2013. In other words, work together or suffer the consequences.
An announcement of failure Monday by the Republican and Democratic chairs of the supercommittee is an admission that those consequences won out over a compromise.
What would a compromise have looked like? President Barack Obama’s bipartisan deficit-reduction panel set the tone for such a deal early this year. The Simpson-Bowles commission outlined a mixed diet of spending cuts, reductions in social insurance programs and tax increases for the wealthy, all carefully rolled in so as to not disrupt the fragile national economy. The top Republican and Democrat on the panel — Alan Simpson, a former Republican U.S. senator, and Erskine Bowles, chief of staff under President Bill Clinton — loudly argued that those three ingredients are required.
Most accounts of the supercommittee workings confirm that spending cuts and social insurance adjustments were on the table, though the debate centered on precisely how much to cut. Tax increases for those Americans most able to afford them, however, were a non-starter for Republicans on the supercommittee.
Republicans will thus come in for a lot of criticism for their inability to budge on taxes. Democrats will accuse them of protecting the very richest Americans to the detriment of nation.
In return, Republicans will claim Democrats mishandled their side of the compromise. “If you look at the Democrats’ position it was, ‘We have to raise taxes. We have to pass this jobs bill, which is another almost half-trillion dollars. And we’re not excited about entitlement reform,’ ” Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., said Sunday on NBC’s Meet the Press.
No side will elude some measure of blame in this super-fiasco, including the president. It was the Obama administration that put off raising the debt ceiling in late 2010 while Democrats still held a majority in the U.S. House. The Republicans took control of the House in 2011 and it was their foot-dragging that brought on a last-minute deal on the debt ceiling. Part of that arrangement was the creation of the supercommittee and its goal of debt-reduction.
Obama’s arms-length relationship with his own Simpson-Bowles commission is another problem. The president missed an opportunity earlier this year to accept its framework and set about to sell it to the American people. Such an effort may have been as futile as the not-so-super supercommittee, but it would have displayed a chief executive exerting leadership. Monday Obama said he will keep the pressure on Congress by not allowing it to evade the penalties that come with a missed $1.2 trillion deadline. That’s a welcome signal that the president is forcefully engaging.
Americans are looking for leaders in Washington to manage our big problems. That search continues.