As the supercommittee approaches its Nov. 23 deadline, the commission seems closer and closer to failure. (KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS)

But one of the biggest reasons the committee flopped was a failure of consequences. Personal ones, that is. While there are big national repercussions for the committee’s inability to strike a deal—from massive cuts in the defense budget to not extending the expanded unemployment benefits and payroll tax cuts that are helping to prop up the recovery, says Ezra Klein—the immediate individual consequences for the 12 members of the committee were minimal.

Sure, they don’t look very good to the public right now as they point fingers at each other and try to deflect any blame. And they could very well lose their jobs down the road if voters get frustrated enough by the utter intransigence and dysfunction in Washington. But voters’ memories are short, and any election is still at least a year away. (The only senator up for re-election in 2012 is Arizona Republican John Kyl, and he plans to retire.)  

Imagine for a moment that the supercommittee had been structured in a way that put real skin in the game for its members. Say, for instance, that anyone selected would lose their high-powered regular committee spots if the group did not reach an agreement. Or perhaps they would not receive party support with their re-election campaigns if they were unable to strike a deal. Or maybe they’d all have to participate in a special “Dancing with the Stars: The Supercommittee Season.”

But in all seriousness, the Joint Commission failed because the biggest consequences for these 12 people’s careers came not if if they didn’t strike a deal but if they angered their party’s leadership. The sticks, in other words, were being used to punish the wrong result.

And speaking of sticks, there was also little in the way of carrots. The committee might have fared better had there been direct rewards for their success. Reach an agreement, those who set up the supercommittee might have said, and you’ll be rewarded with greater seniority in your party’s leadership, or one of the most coveted committee chairs in Congress. Whatever compensation may have existed for striking a deal, rather than staying loyal to one’s party, came in the intangible and unlikely form of looking like a hero to a frustrated public.

The mistake this country’s leaders made in setting up the supercommittee was that they believed the so-called leaders in Congress would be motivated enough by repercussions to the country if they failed. That is, after all, what leaders are supposed to do: Put the needs of the greater good ahead of themselves. But that is not human nature, and it’s not surprising that without a direct threat of career fallout, there was no deal. The supercommittee’s collapse is not just a consequential failure, but a failure of consequences, too.

More from On Leadership:

Supercommittee, meet F. Scott Fitzgerald

Simpson & Bowles: The committee's big question

Mr. Schmidt goes to Washington

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