We have a super-committee. Or most of one, anyway. Ruth Marcus has already examined Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s less-than-inspiring picks for the joint congressional panel that must identify at least $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction to prevent painful, automatic, across-the-board spending cuts. Since Ruth wrote, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) have announced their choices. McConnell insisted that he chose committee members who are “serious” and “constructive.” But did he and Boehner really do that? The outlook is not so good.
Both leaders sprinkled the super-committee with ideologues who are unlikely to seek authentic compromise with Democrats. Perhaps most glaring is Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), who used to lead the vehemently anti-tax Club for Growth. He voted against the recent debt-limit deal, which convened the super-committee in the first place and was heavily tilted toward Republican priorities. He also insisted that refusing to raise the debt limit wouldn’t be so bad, since it wouldn’t force default — merely a massive, immediate, uncertainty-inducing and economy-killing collapse in federal spending.
Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Tex.), meanwhile, is one of the more conservative members of the Texas delegation. He led the fight against the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) in 2008, raising some good and some not-so-valid objections. Ultimately, though, the vote on TARP — particularly the second time around, after the stock market plummeted and as the economy teetered on the brink of all-out panic — was the closest thing to a vote for or against legislative sanity America has seen recently. He voted the wrong way when the stakes were truly massive.
Then there are the GOP picks that would be encouraging in another, less Tea-infused time. Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), once a relatively moderate Republican, is the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. He got that job by jumping far right during leadership elections earlier this year. And since, the House Energy panel has reported out lots of red-meat GOP bills that have little chance in the Senate, but make political points. On light-bulb efficiency standards, for example, he’s now fighting against policies he sponsored and passed only a few years ago. Not exactly a record of standing up to the base in the interest of compromise.
Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.) and Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) are somewhat more encouraging, since they both have budget-policy bona fides. Camp, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, is somehow a member of the moderate Main Street Partnership and the right-wing Republican Study Committee. Portman was President George W. Bush’s budget director, which, amazingly, indicates that he is more moderate than the Tea Party right. But that also means Portman is implicated in the irresponsible budgeting of the previous president. Like Upton, he may have to stay right to prove his credibility.
This selection isn’t as bad as it could have been. Though there are some on the super-committee who probably won’t vote for anything like compromise, only one member from one side would need to break ranks to approve a plan, in the unlikely scenario that the other side unanimously favored a proposal moderate enough to encourage such a defection. And, yet, between the Democratic and Republican picks, the sins of omission are glaring. It appears that none of the men and women who have really stuck their necks out for the sort of ambitious compromise required — much bigger than the envisioned $1.5 trillion, with tax hikes and real entitlement reform — will sit on the super-committee. Where are the Mark Warners? Where are the lawmakers who have labored tirelessly against the ideological intransigence of people such as Toomey to strike a real bargain? Their absence doesn’t bode well for how serious and constructive Congress’s leaders really expect the super-committee to be.