Debt supercommittee might turn out to be a useful failure

November 23, 2011

Will the “supercommittee” turn out to be a useful failure?

Two days after its death, this idea is the committee’s last chance to matter. There is hope that its debacle could pave the way for some deal — by clarifying the issues and suggesting new areas of common ground. Maybe the supercommittee at least gave lawmakers a clearer picture of where they disagree.

Next year, Congress will come right back to the same issues that defeated the supercommittee, facing a time bomb of its own making: huge, automatic budget cuts that will be triggered in January 2013 if there is no budget deal.

Thanks to the failed supercommittee, lawmakers may have a better sense of how the two sides could eventually agree.

“We did a lot of good work,” said Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), one of the 12 members of the committee. “It’s all available now for the House and Senate to look at, as we continue on this necessary effort to deal with our fiscal crisis.”

Maybe.

But the supercommittee did not do the other things that made past Capitol Hill disappointments useful. It did not leave behind a detailed blueprint for a future deal. It did little to rally a divided public behind one solution or another.

That may make it a failure. Even among failures.

“It’s hard to see everything coming together, unless we can overcome this absolute [Republican] insistence on protecting tax breaks for very high-income individuals,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), another committee member.

The supercommittee did reveal that Republicans may be amenable to some tax increases, which seemed improbable before.

During the negotiations, Republican committee members broke with anti-tax forces in their party and offered to accept nearly $300 billion in increased tax revenues. That was achieved largely through ending deductions and closing loopholes — although Republicans also required overall tax rates to be lowered for the wealthy.

On the other side, Democrats showed they might agree to cuts in cherished federal benefit programs.

One offer from the committee’s Democrats included as much as $500 billion in cuts to Medicare and other federal health programs. It also included an offer to use a less-generous method of calculating benefit increases for Social Security.

That was a major concession for a party that had made the defense of Medicare and Social Security a key part of its campaign message.

During the supercommittee’s negotiations, both sides dismissed the other’s offer as being less than serious. But now, legislators are hoping these small steps can provide an opening for some other kind of breakthrough.

Some have called for a return to detailed debt-reducing plans produced earlier this year, including one by President Obama’s fiscal commission. It would achieve $4 trillion in budget savings by both cutting entitlement programs and boosting taxes.

Sen. Richard J. Durbin (Ill.), the body’s second-ranking Democrat, also suggested a revival of informal bargaining between the two parties.

“I think we ought to say after February first of next year, any 12 senators, six of either party, who produce a plan that can reduce this deficit by at least as much as the supercommittee was charged to do ought to be able to bring it to the floor for a vote,” Durbin said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program.Durbin also is trying to revive an effort by a “Gang of Six” senators to craft a budget-
cutting plan.

The supercommittee did manage to simplify the two parties’ fight over taxes. It is now chiefly about taxes on the wealthy — a narrower issue than taxes on everybody, and perhaps easier to solve.

Republicans insisted that, to protect a fragile economy, Bush-era tax cuts needed be extended for everyone.

Democrats wanted the tax cuts to be terminated for the very rich, who they say have a moral and fiscal responsibility to contribute more.

On that issue, the supercommittee broke down.

“The parties are much closer on tax policy than it would appear from the rhetoric,” said Bob Bixby of the nonpartisan Concord Coalition. “They’re fighting about that top echelon.”

The idea of failure as progress is a long-standing part of congressional lore. Capitol Hill mythology holds that “everything dies three times before it lives” and that seven years elapse between the arrival of a good idea and its passage into law.

In the past, several significant proposals incurred many deaths as doomed bills paved the way for historic successes. The first anti-lynching bills in the 1920s paved the way for landmark civil rights laws in the 1960s. The failed effort to overhaul health care in the 1990s informed the successful one under President Obama.

Skeptics say that based on the completeness and public nature of it failure, the supercommittee is not one of those useful failures.

“I’d love to see a silver lining here, and I’m trying as hard as I can. But I don’t see it,” said Jared Bernstein, a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities who is a former Obama administration adviser. “It seems like they started with intractably hardened positions . . . on taxes. And they never really budged.”

David A. Fahrenthold covers Congress for the Washington Post. He has been at the Post since 2000, and previously covered (in order) the D.C. police, New England, and the environment.
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