Why a debt supercommittee success might still be a failure


Congressional Budget Office Director Doug Elmendorf arrives on Capitol Hill last month to testify at a debt supercommittee hearing. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Perhaps a more pressing question, however, is not whether the joint committee hits the $1.2 trillion mark but rather what the outlines of any potential deal might look like — and how that deal might affect the longer-term outlook for U.S. debt.

As the Post’s Lori Montgomery and Paul Kane reported last week, some independent budget analysts have argued that a $1.2 trillion package comprised of accounting gimmicks could end up being worse for the U.S. credit rating — as well as for global financial markets — than a failure by the supercommittee to reach any deal at all:

Steven Hess, who analyzes sovereign debt for Moody’s, said the credit ratings agency decided to uphold the nation’s AAA rating in August in part because “more than $2 trillion in deficit reduction was at least planned.”

Tinkering with that agreement “would bring added pressure from the financial markets,” said Ken Bentsen, an official with the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association. Markets, Bentsen said, would begin to fear “that Washington was just abandoning everything.”

In other words, more important than the size of the deal is its substance. And when it comes to the perennial impasse between the parties on the key issues of taxes and entitlement reform, neither side appears to have given up any ground.

That means that if any deal is to be struck that meets or exceeds the target set by August’s debt-ceiling legislation, it’s increasingly likely that the package will count savings from the drawdown of U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan — a move backed by many Democrats as well as some GOP lawmakers but dismissed by House Republican leaders as a budgetary trick.

By contrast, pulling the trigger on a $1.2 trillion across-the-board cut would represent a political failure for the debt supercommittee but could end up being the better option in terms of preserving the U.S. credit rating.

Of course, even that option might not be a sure thing, as defense hawks have pledged to work to undo any cuts enacted if the trigger is pulled.

When the supercommittee holds its fourth public meeting this Wednesday to examine discretionary spending, it will be worth watching whether — and if so, which — members voice concern about taking any steps considered by some to be accounting gimmicks in order to reach the panel’s $1.2 trillion goal.

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