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Our super-pathetic debt supercommittee

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For weeks, the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction heard exhortations to “go big” and come up with a $4 trillion to $5 trillion debt reduction package. But committee members apparently couldn’t even agree on their mandated $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction — and it seems increasingly likely that they will now throw in the towel with no agreement at all.

This is, quite simply, pathetic.

The fact that both sides are deadlocked on entitlements and taxes is no excuse for failing to agree on any spending cuts whatsoever. If the supercommittee couldn’t find a way to “go big,” the very least it could do was “go small.” There are hundreds of billions in cuts that Democrats and Republicans could pocket without cutting entitlements or raising taxes. Failure to do so will make this one of the saddest displays of incompetence ever witnessed in Washington.

On Friday, Republicans offered a “go small” plan that would reduce the deficit by $640 billion — including a pay freeze and bigger pension contributions for federal workers, cuts in farm subsidies and other spending reductions. According to one GOP aide, this is “the lowest of the low-hanging fruit, stuff that everyone agrees on.” Republicans even gave in to one of the Democrats’ long-held demands, eliminating the special tax break for corporate jets, which would raise $3 billion in new taxes over 10 years.

The Democrats rejected the GOP offer. Sen. Patty Murray, Democratic co-chairman of the supercommittee, declared “it does not meet, even close to coming to meet, the issues that we set out from the beginning: fair and balanced.” Translation: Democrats won’t sign on to any spending cuts, no matter how modest, if Republicans do not agree to massive tax increases.

This makes no sense at all. The $1.2 billion sequester, which will go into effect if the supercommittee fails, is made up entirely of spending cuts, with no tax increases. Refusing to substitute some mutually agreed upon targeted cuts for the automatic, across-the-board cuts is ridiculous.

If the $640 billion in spending cuts Republicans proposed are unacceptable to the Democrats, why don’t they cut $400 billon? Or $200 billion? Or $100 billion? Something? Anything? Democrats seem intent on letting the supercommittee crash and burn rather than making a less-than-optimal emergency landing.

If the supercommittee fails, Republicans will rightly point out that they put two serious proposals on the table only to have Democrats reject both offers without ever putting forward a unified counterproposal. They will note that, not only did Democrats reject the GOP’s “Plan B” offer last week, they also dismissed a proposal by Sen. Pat Toomey that included some $300 billion in tax increases. In making this offer, Toomey and his fellow Republicans crossed a line in the sand their party had drawn — risking a major backlash from the GOP rank-and-file and the conservative grassroots. But instead of accepting this concession in good faith and putting forward a serious counteroffer, Democrats immediately attacked it and demanded $1 trillion in tax increases — something to which they knew full well Republicans could never agree.

The result of this obstinacy is now clear: The supercommittee appears to be headed toward failure. And this may be precisely what the Democrats want. With President Obama’s approval ratings in the tank, and their party poised to lose control of the Senate in 2012, Democrats know their only hope to stave off electoral disaster is to run a negative campaign that paints Republicans as intransigent extremists. They may have concluded that a bipartisan agreement on debt reduction — especially one in which the GOP agreed to hundreds of billions in tax increases — would undermine that narrative.

The problem is if the supercommittee fails to reach agreement on any spending cuts, the Democrats will not be able to blame Republican intransigence. It is the Democrats who have rejected every offer and every compromise Republicans put forward. If Democrats take time to reflect on this, perhaps they’ll discover at the last minute the virtue of “going small” — especially when the alternative may be “going home” courtesy of the voters next November.

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