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Stuntmen of the supercommittee

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As members of the budget “supercommittee” arrived in a congressional hearing room for another public hearing this week, a more compelling performance of political theater was debuting nearby on the east lawn of the Capitol.

A dozen demonstrators, wearing blue and red “supercommittee” capes and masks showing larger-than-life faces of the committee members, posed for the cameras. Next to them, a grim reaper, carrying cleavers labeled “budget cuts,” menaced a group of bound hostages wearing labels such as “USAID” and “Global Health Initiative.” As the reaper raised his knives over the hostages, the committee members only shrugged.

“Are those bobbleheads?” a nearby Capitol police officer asked a reporter.

Not exactly. The performance was officially dubbed a “photo stunt” by its organizer, Oxfam America.

There was something refreshing about Oxfam’s honesty in labeling its activity a stunt. It might be a useful model for the supercommittee.

The lawmakers’ responsibility is gravely serious, but their public deliberations are about as useful as those of the actors on the east lawn.

Reasonable people on all sides know that tackling the nation’s long-term debt problems will require both an increase in taxes and cuts to entitlement programs. But just weeks from the committee’s deadline, Republicans continue to resist new tax revenues, and Democrats dance around the need for entitlement cuts.

And so, as the 12 stuntmen on the committee assembled for their hearing this week, it was to discuss something different: the relatively small slice of the budget known as “discretionary spending.” Even at this late stage, their comments -- in public, at least -- suggest they are less interested in agreeing than in making points.

“There has to be balance,” said Democrat co-chair Patty Murray (D-Wash.).

“Our entitlement spending is roughly 60 percent of the budget and growing,” countered Republican co-chair Jeb Hensarling (Texas).

“One of our major problems is the drop in revenues,” asserted Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.).

“The need to rein in mandatory spending is obviously one of the priorities that we need to address,” countered Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.).

“We need to do it, I believe, in a balanced way,” posited Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.).

The only thing they seemed to agree on was that they weren’t focusing on the main issues. “Non-defense discretionary spending represents less than one-fifth of total federal spending,” Murray pointed out. “Listening to the debates here in D.C. over the last few months, you would think this small piece of pie was a whole lot bigger.”

“In many respects today,” Hensarling concurred, “we may be debating the pennies, nickels and dimes in a debt crisis that is demanding half dollars and dollar bills.”

Compared to these posturing games, genuine stunts were more compelling – such as the demonstrator who disrupted the proceedings by shouting out a different solution: “End the wars! That’s how we fix the deficit. And all this obfuscation with percentages of GDP, this is just trying to confuse the issue.”

While the lawmakers talked past each other, the advocacy group Strengthen Social Security performed its own stunt, by conference call. The group invited an actual Social Security recipient from Massachusetts to plead with Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), a supercommittee member, to resist all cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

“We depend on these things,” pleaded the elderly woman, who retired in 1987. “We worry about them each and every day.”

Of course, the Social Security and Medicare benefits for a woman of her age aren’t in jeopardy, regardless of what the supercommittee does. But this was theater.

I asked the man leading the call, Syracuse University’s Eric Kingson, how the debt problem could be solved without any cuts to entitlements.

He said we should end the “tax holiday for the very well off.”

By all means. But let’s not pretend that alone will fix the problem:

The only way out, ultimately, is to raise taxes AND cut entitlements.

If the dozen stuntmen on the supercommittee don’t adopt that thinking in the coming weeks, they might as well be wearing capes and bobbleheads.

danamilbank@washpost.com

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