The Gang of Six is a noble idea. A consensus-driven, bipartisan working group on the deficit crisis, the coalition of three Republican and three Democratic lawmakers hashing out a compromise their colleagues can vote on is the sort of high-minded, honorable notion that is so rare in Washington these days.
The problem? It doesn’t appear to be working. While a report may still come, its release has been stalled, and one member of the so-called gang, Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), abruptly announced Tuesday he would be rolling out his own offering. The talks have gotten so drawn out, one Democratic aide has said, they’re becoming less and less relevant. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid even forgot to include the group when he recently listed the competing plans for reducing the deficit.
In the meantime, the White House and GOP lawmakers have begun talks on a deal that, at least as outlined, appears to have support from both sides. The plan, which would produce significant cuts in order to get the votes to raise the debt ceiling while postponing land mine issues such as Medicare until the 2012 election, will be like getting “a single or a double,” says Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), rather than a “grand slam” that would mirror his more radical budget overhaul. Hardly unbridled enthusiasm; but in Washington, it’s better than nothing.
As a result, it’s quite possible the Gang of Six’s report could be sidelined, or arrive too late. Such an outcome highlights the downsides of consensus-building, and to what extent a group of peers without a nominal leader have trouble making progress during emergency situations. While most leadership thinkers hail concessions and compromises as critical skills, there are times when it can actually hinder real progress, rather than bringing two sides together to move forward.
That appears to be what’s happening with the Gang of Six. There is a serious deadline, after all. If Congress does not vote to raise the debt ceiling by this summer—now Aug. 2, according to Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner—the U.S. could default on its debt, sending the economy into a tailspin. And no Republican lawmaker is going to risk voting for such an action—no matter the consequences, they say—without some serious spending cuts that would help to bring down the deficit.
If they’re able to produce a report in the coming weeks, the Gang of Six’s bipartisan approach could be just the plan needed to bridge the revenue-versus-spending gap that so dominates this debate. But if they don’t do so quickly, they’re likely to be beat to the punch by the deal getting hashed out between the White House and the GOP. Unfortunately, the back-and-forth negotiations of an evenly split group without an apparent chairman may be too slow for the sort of pressing emergency deadline that this country faces over the debt ceiling.
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