Posted by: Joshua Green on November 28, 2011
It’s not hard to find the biggest turkeys this Thanksgiving - they’re the 12 members of the bipartisan supercommittee who were deputized in August to cut at least $1.2 trillion from the deficit.
The group made a half-hearted bid, then threw in its hand a day early and announced its failure. Jaded Beltway types had already dismissed this as a given. But it’s significant nonetheless. The supercommittee operated under the most favorable conditions possible, designed to avoid the traps and pitfalls that typically make Congress such a frustratingly ineffective body. Had agreement been feasible, the supercommittee was the best bet. That it couldn’t manage to arrive at one - and apparently never came close - should be regarded as a new milestone of congressional futility.
In August, Congress passed the Budget Control Act, the frantic last-minute compromise to avoid a national default that had become necessary when Republicans refused to raise the debt ceiling without steep cuts in spending. The new law cut $900 billion and pledged $1.2 trillion more than the supercommittee would identify. To prevent straggling or postponement, the law set a deadline of Nov. 23.
To minimize posturing for the public and for lobbyists, the members were allowed to meet privately. To incline them toward compromise, the law included a “sequester” that would, in the event of their failure, automatically trigger $1.2 trillion in cuts evenly divided between military and entitlement spending - a prospect meant to be sufficiently unpleasant that neither side would permit it.
The law’s most valuable and perceptive feature was the provision suspending the rules most commonly employed by both parties to thwart legislation. A supercommittee agreement could not be amended, so it would be invulnerable to poison pills. Nor could it be filibustered, which meant that it would take only 50 votes to pass, rather than the 60 votes that today’s systematic Republican obstructionism typically requires.
And identifying good ideas for deficit savings with bipartisan support was hardly a heavy lift. From the Bowles-Simpson report to the Rivlin-Ryan plan to the Gang of Six proposal to the Obama-Boehner framework to the white papers and proposals of every think tank and institute in Washington, the supercommittee had an entire library on which to draw.
All these advantages were squandered. Republicans’ refusal to consider any serious increase in revenue, and Democrats’ refusal to entertain entitlement cuts without them, doomed any chance of success.
Disappointing as that may be, it does offer some clarity on how the country will at last confront its spending and entitlement problems.
Over the last year, as the deficit has increasingly dominated Washington’s attention, it has gotten harder, not easier, to agree, as the two parties have moved further apart. The Bowles-Simpson plan, which would cut $4 trillion over 10 years and require $1 trillion in new revenue, drew more support from Republicans than later plans like Obama’s, which raised less revenue. It’s now obvious, as former budget director Peter Orzsag argues, that not enough common ground exists between the parties to strike a compromise, which leaves two possibilities for government to function: Either one party dominates, as Democrats did during Obama’s first two years, or decisions can only be made outside of Congress.
The supercommittee’s collapse imbues next year’s election with enormous significance. Twelve years ago, Ralph Nader ran on the idea that there wasn’t “a dime’s worth of difference” between Republicans and Democrats. Today, that’s less true than ever - and this latest failure should soon make clear why this is so.
Washington’s best handicappers expect Republicans to win control of the Senate and maintain control of the House. That would put even greater significance on the question of which party occupies the White House. A Republican president working with a Republican Congress could probably enact the sweeping tax and spending cuts that conservatives demand - changes radical enough to rewrite the social contract, if they dared follow through on them. But if President Obama is reelected, he’ll be able to veto any such plan. And the imminent expiration of the Bush tax cuts gives him an extraordinary opportunity to raise trillions of dollars in revenue without having to deal with Congress, simply by letting them expire.
Congress having failed, the broad future of government spending and deficits therefore must hinge on who wins the presidency.
Joshua Green writes a weekly column for the Boston Globe.