As members of Congress return to Washington, they prepare to stare down not only the renewed budget debate in October, but also the fallout over the debt ceiling standoff. The hastily stitched together package that rumbled its way through Congress in an effort to make sure our hardworking congressmen made it to their fundraising vacations on time leaves many unanswered questions, especially when it comes to how exactly we are going to reduce spending in Washington.
The legislative creature that arose from the partisan wasteland of the debt ceiling deal was dubbed the “super committee,” a legislative committee comprised of three members from each house and each party, totaling 12 hand-picked legislators who would sit down to the business of finding at least $1.2 trillion in spending cuts by Thanksgiving. Any proposal coming out of the committee would receive a straight up-down vote in both houses of Congress, with no allowance of amendments or filibuster. Failure by the committee to find cuts would result in automatic triggers slashing hundreds of billions from, among other things, entitlement and defense spending.
Now that the talking heads and members of the public have had a chance to chew on this latest manifestation of congressional initiative, the opinion seems to be that the jury is still out.
On the one hand, many see the committee as a gift, bestowed unto Congress in order to allow laser-focused reforms and cuts without the threat of extraneous debate, unconscionable rider amendments, and hyperpartisan politicking. Still, the super committee has been decried as an unconstitutional power shift, taking the power of 535 elected leaders and handing it over to an insider team of hand-picked players.
How much the committee can actually get done remains to be seen. For starters, all 12 lawmakers on the committee represent states where the largest military contractors employ tens of thousands of workers, not to mention the tens of thousands of uniformed service members stationed at bases throughout the committee states. Their selection to the committee by their respective leadership is no accident. The threat of $500 billion in automatic defense cuts should the committee fail to find agreement is the rather large anvil overhead meant to ensure something makes its way out of this newly established “Gang of 12.”
Perhaps the most telling outcome of the debt ceiling debacle is the formation of the super committee itself. The fact that Congress voluntarily voted to cede its power to 12 select members out of hope for some sort of bipartisan progress speaks a great deal to the gridlock in Washington.
This too is no surprise. The politics of obstruction has established itself front and center in the last few years, particularly in the Republican effort to gum up the works in order to hamstring a Democrat-led government and ensure Obama stays a one-term president.
While such unabashed partisanship might make for “good” politics, it is no way to govern a nation.
By passing and implementing this super committee, Congress has plainly stated that the partisan bickering in Washington has become so dysfunctional that the process must be circumvented in order to make any tangible progress.
This sort of admission bodes poorly for the future of governance and politics in America. First and foremost, the idea of a super committee, while constitutional, chips away at the very foundation of our republic — that there shall be no laws levied against those without representation. While one can parse language and argue that the full Congress still gets to vote on the final agreement, that is a cop-out argument that ignores the fact that 523 elected representatives will be unable to do anything other than rubber-stamp or veto the political behemoth coming out of the committee. This isn’t legislation nor is it representation.
More importantly, should this committee find success, an unnerving precedent for the future of congressional politics and governance could be set. Will Congress further devolve into nothing more than a collection of campaign opportunities leading up to the next election cycle, with true legislative decisions left to future super committees that will be tasked with falling on their sword for the good of the party? Will the threat of ubiquitous filibuster force us into legislation by temporary Politburos?
Rather than slapping another hastily engineered band-aid on the symptom, Congress should turn to addressing the root cause of the problem — inexcusable partisanship and a procedural structure that incentivizes, rather than discourages, obstructionist politics.
Calls for reform of Senate procedural rules to address the abuse of the filibuster have been bipartisan and growing in number. While elimination of the filibuster may not be the necessary outcome (one could speed up the cloture process or decrease the votes needed to break filibuster), some reform on the nature of its use is a discussion worth having.
Regardless of outcome, Congress’ decision to implement a fast-tracked super committee to make its decisions is a cry for help by an institution collapsing under its own political posturing. The American people must demand and vote for more honest representation. The only way to reform the system from the outside is to punish those who abuse it from within. Failure to do so condemns the Great American Experiment to a slow, hyperpartisan decay.
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