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Time for leaders to delegate on the budget

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Bob Woodward (woodwardb@washpost.com) is an associate editor of The Post. His latest book is “The Price of Politics.” Evelyn Duffy contributed to this commentary.

The agreement on the “fiscal cliff” left the nation’s major economic problems — its federal deficit and debt, high unemployment and low growth — on the negotiating-room floor. What went wrong?

Part of the problem may lie with the negotiating style, the procedures and methods of both the Obama administration and Congress. They all try to run it from the top. The natural impulse was first to have the president and House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) meet. Several sessions as the Jan. 1 fiscal-cliff deadline approached were short, an hour or less. The president complained to his staff that Boehner presented only talking points and wasn’t there to negotiate. Boehner complained to his staff that the president did most of the talking, adopting a condescending, lecturing tone.

The fire brigade of Vice President Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) arrived last weekend to hammer out a mini-deal that avoided the immediate fiscal cliff but ducked the hard decisions.

Throughout the standoff, the players used their staff as messengers and for backup — but never empowered them to solve the problem.

Could the staffers have done better? The behind-the-scenes story of the failure of the supercommittee last year, until now unreported, suggests that they could have.

The supercommittee was charged with finding $1.2 trillion in deficit cuts over 10 years. To guarantee its success, Congress and Obama agreed on $110 billion in mandatory spending cuts that would take effect Jan. 1, 2013, if the supercommittee failed — cuts so odious that the supercommittee would not allow itself to fail. Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and minority leader McConnell were fully on board with the plan. “The supercommittee is going to work,” Boehner told me in an interview last year. “I’ve got Reid’s and McConnell’s commitments.” It was a sure thing, they all agreed.

The committee had about three months to do its work. While most of the congressional leaders and supercommittee members were out of town in October 2011, they assigned top staffers to work out a $1.2 trillion deficit-reduction agreement.

The group included Boehner’s policy director, Brett Loper, and McConnell’s top tax and financial policy adviser, Rohit Kumar. Reid designated Jon Selib, chief of staff to the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Max Baucus (D-Mont.). Top staffers to the supercommittee co-chairs, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Tex.), also took part.

The five staffers struggled for a week. In my files is a one-page, typed document dated Oct. 23, 2011, showing that they essentially reached agreement. The Republicans had a total deficit reduction of $1.2 trillion and the Democrats had $1.24 trillion — a difference of $40 billion, not much.

Some staffers were ready to break out the champagne. They had a pipeline straight to the leadership in both parties. But the members of the supercommittee did not trust each other. Instead of adopting the staff agreement or a version of it, they decided to go big and craft a deficit-reduction package of up to $3 trillion. They were shooting for a “grand bargain.”

The record shows they overreached: The mandatory cuts of $110 billion were not forestalled; the Biden-McConnell agreement has postponed them, but only for two months.

Over those two months, the leaders cannot be detached or indifferent, but they may need to get out of the way and let their able staff, working with bipartisan empowerment, come up with a plan. Maybe the president and congressional leaders should send their relevant staffers to Camp David for a week or two and instruct them to come up with a blueprint.

The old standbys — the merlot-and-Nicorette gatherings of Obama and Boehner; sending in Biden, the “McConnell whisperer,” to cut a deal with the Senate minority leader — are not enough. Over the next two months and probably the whole of this year, what will be required is serious, nonstop engagement by fully empowered staffers, the senior experts in both parties.

In late 1982, President Ronald Reagan, not one to get lost in detail, very reluctantly signed into law the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act, which his staff had persuaded him was necessary. At that time, it was the largest tax increase in history, some $100 billion in business taxes over 10 years.

Reagan White House aides told me at the time how the president responded when asked how a renowned tax-cutter such as himself could approve a tax increase.

Darn, Reagan said, did we do that? He then pivoted and rather elegantly picked up one of his feet and kicked himself in the rear. Everyone laughed.

Both Democrats and Republicans need to circumvent the vulture politics of the day that demonizes the opposition. Obama and Boehner need to create a climate in which all involved can adopt the stylish accommodation of Ronald Reagan, pivot elegantly, kick themselves in the rear end and declare, Darn, did we do that?

More on this debate: Charles Krauthammer: Return of the real Obama Eugene Robinson: Clowns on Capitol Hill Michael Gerson: Congress avoided self-destruction — nothing else Fareed Zakaria: The ‘cliff’ debate is missing a plan for growth George Will: Our decadent democracy E.J. Dionne: The cliff deal is better than it first looks David Ignatius: Obama missing in action

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