Why the supercommittee failed — in 3 easy steps

at 02:09 PM ET, 11/21/2011

The failure of the congressional supercommittee to find common ground on at least $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction is easily — albeit cynically — explained in three steps.


FILE - In this Sept. 13, 2011 file photo Supercommittee co-chairs Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, left, and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., center, listen as the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction hears testimony about the history of the national debt by the Congressional Budget Office director on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2011. At right is Senate Republican Whip Jon Kyl, R-Ariz. (AP Photo/File/J. Scott Applewhite)
We go through each of them in some detail below — and, no, one of them isn’t that the supercommittee never got capes, although that didn’t help — but the gist is this: the political pressure to do something never came close to matching the political will not to.

And away we go!

1. The public didn’t care/didn’t expect anything:As we wrote last week, roughly half of the American public said they were “not at all familiar” with the supercommittee — much less that the committee was tasked with doing.

That disinterest was compounded by a widespread cynicism that Congress could actually deliver the $1.2 trillion in budget cuts that were being discussed. In a CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll released last week, nearly eight in 10 Americans said that it was “very” (42 percent) or “somewhat” doubtful that the supercommittee would accomplish its goals.

Congress is a (generally) reactive institution. Knowing that the public didn’t care about the supercommittee made inaction was the most appealing political course.

Why do something that has genuine political pain attached to it if the alternative doesn’t involve similar immediate negative consequences? The “it’s the right thing for the country” answer may sound good rolling off the tongue but it has lots less currency in the current political environment.

2. The deadline wasn’t a deadline: Yes, the supercommittee had Nov. 23 — that’s Wednesday — as the deadline for coming to a deal. But, it was a deadline without consequences, which, in politics, isn’t a deadline at all.

Sequestration — the package of cuts hitting politically sensitive areas including defense — doesn’t trigger until January 2013, which, coincidentally, comes after the November 2012 election. (And, yes, we are being sarcastic.)

That gives Congress — at least in theory — an entire year to figure out how to avoid or undo sequestration. And, it allows the American public to have their say before Congress makes any final decision on the best way forward to preserve our fiscal house. (See our mention above about Congress as a reactive institution.)

We’ve written before that Congress approaches climactic legislative decisions like a college student writing a term paper. They wait, wait, wait until the last possible minute then work like mad to get it done before the deadline. (Mrs. Fix, we are looking at you.)

The reality of the supercommittee is that the paper — or at least the bulk of it — isn’t due for another year. And no one writes a paper a year in advance. Not even huge nerds.

3. Disagreement is fundamental: While it’s easy to deride the supercommittee specifically and Congress more generally for failing to do something big on the deficit, it’s also worth remembering that what has led us to this impasse is, in the main, a fundamental difference in views.

Republicans believe that raising taxes on anyone is a recipe for further economic slowdown and the wrong way to turn things around. Democrats see raising taxes on the wealthy as a no-brainer but are resistant to cutting social programs such as Medicare and/or Social Security.

And, those views are largely backed up by their two political bases. In new CNN poll numbers, self-identified Republicans opposed any tax increases by a 59 percent to 39 percent margin while Democrats are against spending cuts by a similar 57 percent to 42 percent margin.

The simple fact is that the leadership of both parties (as well as their rank and file members) see the economic world through two very different prisms. And neither side has any incentive to budge until the election next year when, theoretically, the public will offer some guidance of where they stand in terms of the economic debate currently roiling Washington.

While the assumption that the voters will send a clear signal may be misguided given the back-and-forth outcomes of the last three elections, politicians in both parties seem dead set on waiting until after November 2012 to do anything “big”.

Cynical? Yes. True? Um, yes.

 
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