Michael Gerson
Opinion writer September 5, 2011

Labor Day kicks off the football season, the presidential primary season and the unemployment posturing season — all of which jostle for prime-time attention. The one with cheerleaders may be the most dignified of the lot, but at least we have the summer’s depressing debt debate behind us.

Except that we don’t. President Obama only avoided another debt-limit conflict before the presidential election by accepting what has been called a “sword” hanging over each party’s head, a “neutron bomb” about to explode, a “suicide mechanism to force governing,” a “grenade” with its pin pulled. The congressional deficit-reduction supercommittee is evidently so powerful that it has suspended the rule against violent imagery in politics. Its existence guarantees that the debt debate will reconsume American politics by the end of the year — forcing Obama and congressional Republicans to make early choices that will condition the outcome of the 2012 election.

Michael Gerson is a nationally syndicated columnist who appears twice weekly in The Post. View Archive

The supercommittee represents a second shot at the grand bargain that Obama and Speaker John Boehner were on the verge of concluding in July — a mix of entitlement reforms and revenue increases that agitated partisans in both parties. That deal collapsed in mutual recrimination. Congressional liberals undermined Obama by demanding larger revenue increases in exchange for entitlement revisions. Congressional conservatives undermined Boehner by opposing all revenue proposals, including the closing of loopholes in the tax code. Under normal congressional procedures — which empower obstructionists — an agreement could not be reached or imposed.

This ideological impasse remains. But the Budget Control Act, the debt-ceiling deal passed early last month, has dramatically changed congressional procedures. The legislation increases the penalty for stalemate — imposing across-the-board cuts on liberal and conservative spending priorities in the absence of agreement. It also marginalizes the ideological margins. The joint committee’s recommendations are shielded from amendment and filibuster, gaining automatic consideration in the House and Senate by the end of the year.

The Budget Control Act is both a smart maneuver and a cry of despair. It is an admission that the accumulated legislative traditions of the House and Senate are unequal to the fiscal emergency that threatens the credit and credibility of the American government. Congress has been willing to systematically circumvent its normal procedures before. The Base Realignment and Closure Commission, for example, was granted special powers to overcome paralyzing parochialism. But the 12-member deficit supercommittee has been subcontracted to perform Congress’s defining function — the construction of a responsible budget.

This would seem to give a dozen people disproportionate, almost apostolic, authority. But there is little chance the committee will go rogue. The outcome of their deliberations will be heavily influenced by Republican and Democratic congressional leaders and the White House.

The committee might choose timidity. It could cobble together some minor spending-reduction proposals from past commissions — enough to make a dent in its $1.5 trillion goal, but not enough to avoid the trigger of some automatic cuts.

But the supercommittee also has the option of ambition — avoiding the trigger entirely with measures such as raising the Medicare retirement age, imposing entitlement means-testing and reforming the tax code. The committee members to watch here are Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.). Toomey is a true budget hawk, not an anti-tax absolutist. Baucus seems especially (and appropriately) haunted by the prospect of American bankruptcy.

Republican and Democratic leaders would need to sign off on a grand deal, and the politics is not obvious or easy. Both Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell seem to want modest entitlement reforms, even though an agreement would provide Obama modest cover on the spending issue in his reelection campaign. The eventual Republican presidential candidate would probably not be pleased. And the Tea Party will not be amused by any concession on revenue.

Obama’s calculation is even more complex. A grand bargain including entitlement reform might improve his reputation for conciliation, his claim to fiscal responsibility and his standing among independents.

Liberals, however, would feel betrayed — though Obama could probably count, once again, on their meek acceptance. More important, Obama and other Democratic candidates would lose the Medicare stick they have often employed against Republicans in time of electoral need — a form of political disarmament Democrats might regret a year from now.

The deficit debate is exhausting — and just beginning. Having removed a series of roadblocks from the legislative process, Boehner and Obama must now determine how fast and far they want to run.

michaelgerson@washpost.com