Why the Super Committee Failed

On Friday, Democrats on the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction rejected the latest offer made by their Republican counterparts. “It was laughed at,” wrote one Democratic aide. To be fair, it was something of a joke: Republicans proposed only $600 billion in deficit reduction — half the body’s $1.2 trillion objective — and outlined only $3 billion in increased tax revenues, even though Democrats have lobbied consistently for a significant tax increase on the affluent. With a technical deadline fixed for later today, the “Super Committee” seems well and truly dead.

Both sides used the weekend to assign blame, but observers should not mistake this posturing for a real account of the committee’s failure. Although this or that side may have been responsible for the final move, the game of fiscal tic-tac-toe was doomed from the start. Yes, Democrats’ refusals to reform entitlements or Republicans’ opposition to raising taxes on the wealthy may have been the proximate causes of the Super Committee’s collapse. However, the root cause was a bipartisan gutlessness, a common preference amongst party leaders to cause further deadlock rather than to take responsibility for governing the country.

Although I come to this conclusion reluctantly, it’s inevitable once you consider the Super Committee as one of many political maneuvers rather than as a unique episode. In recent legislation, you can see that the parties strain every fiber to avoid responsibility.

Also on Friday, for example, the House failed to pass a Balanced Budget Amendment to the Constitution by only 23 votes, just short of the two-thirds majority required. The Balanced Budget Amendment (BBA) was a proposal doomed to fail — probably in the House, certainly in the Senate, and absolutely in the state legislatures — for the excellent reasons that it would not work, was bad for the states, and was a gross misuse of the Constitution. It was a stunt, and an empty one.

The amendment would have prevented Congress from spending more than it earned in any given year unless it excused itself with a three-fifths supermajority in both chambers.

Fundamentally, the BBA operates on the principle of reducing Congress' responsibility to their country and constituents. By amending the Constitution to include an inflexible rule, Congress would avoid the onerous burdens of dialogue and self-moderation.

Speaking early last week, Representative Mike Ross (D-AR) stated, “It’s become clear that a constitutional amendment is the only way to force Congress’ hand toward fiscal responsibility.” It was apparently beyond hope that Congress might simply behave with fiscal responsibility without first amending the Constitution.

Speculation over the Super Committee overshadowed debate about the budget amendment because this emergency body represents the same sort of moral failure, but on a far grander scale. When Congress crafted the debt ceiling deal in August, the entire legislative branch punted the issue of how to trim the deficit to an extraordinary twelve-member committee. 535 elected representatives passed the buck.

It was unrealistic of us to expect decisive action from Super Committee members when all of Congress seems allergic to even an automatic decision. You can bet that discussions have already begun behind closed doors about how to cancel the automatic cuts intended to pressure the parties into compromise: $600 billion from domestic programs and $600 billion from the Pentagon.

This “sequestration” was supposed to be a sword of Damocles hanging over party leaders’ heads, but on either side of the aisle politicians seem bewildered that they ever came up with the idea. Some Republicans argue that the pre-planned cuts would leave the Pentagon unable to protect America’s interests, and many Democrats seem to agree.

On Thursday, Senator Pat Toomey predicted that, “In the very unfortunate event that our committee were not to be successful, and I still hope we will, but if not, then I think we would have a very concerted effort to reconfigure the sequestration.”

CNBC’s Larry Kudlow asked whether some in Congress were already planning to roll back sequestration. Toomey dodged: “That's possible. I can't speak for it.”

On Sunday, Fox’s Chris Wallace asked Representatives Jeb Hensarling (R-TX) and Xavier Becerra (D-CA) about the automatic cuts. Hensarling pointed out that Congress would have 13 months to renegotiate sequestration to preserve the defense budget. Becerra referred to the sequestration as “a plan you can’t live with.”

Both Congressmen are members of the Super Committee. Rep. Hensarling is the Republican co-chair.

I can sympathize with the eleven men and one woman on the Super Committee, although I can’t excuse them. Imagine: Your every move tracked by bloggers, your every word dissected by newspaper columnists. You know that your betrayal of the party line will never be forgiven. The pressure to do nothing — exactly, absolutely nothing — must be incredible. But these men and women volunteered for an incredible job.

The people’s representatives seem unable to marshal the courage to set America’s fiscal house in order — to raise some taxes, lower others, cut spending, and reform entitlements.

In fact, they hardly seem ready to do anything at all.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons