WHAT NEXT, NOW that the congressional supercommittee has failed? Depressingly, the answer is: not much, at least in the short term. Absent some intervening, cataclysmic event, the debt-reduction can has been kicked once again — this time, until after the election. At that point, the Bush tax cuts will be on the verge, once again, of expiring — at the end of December 2012. Unless it is defused, the mandated “trigger” of $1.2 trillion in automatic cuts, spread evenly between domestic and military spending, will take effect in January 2013.
Can the political system rouse itself, in the face of those threats, to avert the harm? The lesson of the supercommittee is not a happy one. Endowed with special procedural protections to operate by a simple majority and speed its product to the House and Senate floor, the committee found itself paralyzed nonetheless. The gridlock, it turns out, was not a product of procedural failings in the system; it was a result of ideological rigidity.
Individual actors in the latest drama tried to rewrite the inevitable ending. Some Republicans began the process of accepting the need for new tax revenue, offering up a package that would total $300 billion more over the next decade than would be collected if the Bush tax cuts remained in effect. That was a welcome step but nowhere near enough, especially at the cost of locking in the nearly $4 trillion revenue loss of keeping the rest of the tax cuts in place. The balance necessary for a debt reduction deal was way out of whack. Some Democrats, for their part, were willing to accept entitlement cuts, including a change in the formula for calculating cost-of-living increases for Social Security checks and cuts for Medicare beneficiaries.
That the lawmakers were nonetheless unable to reach agreement does not bode well for future negotiations. The 2012 election may produce a change in the occupant of the White House and control of one or both houses of Congress, but it is not likely to produce a clear mandate for either party’s vision of debt reduction. The compromise that proved elusive for the supercommittee will remain necessary. Perhaps it can be achieved in the action-forcing context of the trigger and expiring tax cuts. Working on deficit reduction, after all, requires a triumph of hope over experience.
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