‘Supercommittee’ failure is something we could have averted

November 9, 2011

It’s human nature to want to be able to say, “I told you so” when a prediction you’ve made comes true. But there are times — including this one — that I wish I’d been wrong.

Back in August, I wrote a rage-filled screed about the fools, cowards and incompetents who brought our country to the brink of defaulting on its debts, averting total catastrophe by passing last-minute debt-ceiling legislation that included what I called “a deficit-trimming deal that’s so absurd that you have to laugh when you think hard about it.”

Unfortunately for all of us, that prediction is looking better by the minute, given the seeming disarray of Washington’s “supercommittee” and the mad scramble to avert the cutbacks in defense spending that were supposed to be triggered automatically if the committee failed to agree on a bipartisan plan this month.

Even though I know and respect some of the people involved with the committee, I decided it wasn’t worth spending a minute reporting about it, because I was sure it and its deliberations would prove to be a joke.

Why? Because, to paraphrase the late Herbert Stein, “something that can’t be allowed to happen isn’t going to happen.” There was no way Washington would allow huge overnight cuts to defense spending even if it somehow consented to enact such cuts to social spending, which was part of the August debt-ceiling deal.

That’s the problem with “magic plans” that are supposed to punish failure by triggering a doomsday device, like the one in “Dr. Strangelove,” the classic movie send-up about the downside of atomic “mutually assured destruction” back during the Cold War days.

The problem with depending on a doomsday device to force action is that unless some suicidal lunatic gets involved — many people in Washington may be foolish, but they’re not suicidal — the doomsday device will never actually be triggered.

Had the consequences of supercommittee failure been less severe — say a 20 percent retroactive cut in congressional pay, and a relatively small automatic reduction in defense and social programs, they might have been allowed to happen. But including reasonable cuts in the debt-ceiling legislation wouldn’t have racked up the political cred that the alleged deficit hawks (who’ve never seen a tax cut they didn’t love, consequences be damned) thought they’d gotten from the legislation.

So now, we’re about to have the worst of both worlds. Little or nothing in the way of cuts, and a lot in the way of loss of credibility and continuing partisan paralysis.

I can’t wait until the next debt ceiling debate if we continue to have divided government in Washington. If we have another idiotic standoff, along the lines of the one we had last summer, what unkeepable promises will be embedded in legislation? I also wonder whether this time, the Moody’s and Fitch rating agencies will have the stomach to do what Standard & Poor’s has already done: strip the United States of its triple-A credit rating because of its political dysfunction, rather than its financial situation.

I will be positively thrilled if the supercommittee proves me wrong by coming up with a real, bipartisan package of spending cuts and revenue hikes (formerly known as tax increases). It would probably be the only time in my very long career that I’d be thrilled to have to eat crow rather than to crow about how prescient I was. But I don’t think I’ll have to place my order for crow a l’orange. Too bad for our government’s ever-declining credibility. And too bad for our country.

Sloan is Fortune magazine’s senior editor at large.

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