Commentary: Will anyone worry if the 'supercommittee' fails?

The Kansas City StarOctober 30, 2011 

You’d think the congressional “supercommittee” on deficit reduction might be feeling a bit rushed.

Its deadline is looming. But reportedly, committee members have barely begun to sharpen their pencils.

The 12-member committee has until Nov. 23 to recommend $1.5 trillion worth of budget cutting — which could include budget cuts, changes to entitlements, increased tax revenues, reforming the tax code or some combination of these. If the supercommittee approves a proposal, the full Congress will vote on it, with the usual stalling shenanigans off the table. If the supercommittee fails to propose a plan, or if Congress fails to pass it, automatic cuts amounting to $1.2 trillion will be triggered.

Yet the most pressing question isn’t whether or not the supercommittee will meet the deadline. It’s whether anyone will really be surprised — if it matters, even — if it does not.

A sense of urgency never came with this group’s directive, dire as the situation that spawned it appeared. Recall, the bipartisan group was the result of the summer meltdown, the deadlock over raising the debt ceiling.

The crisis of a U.S. government default was averted after months of high-stakes negotiation and feuding between President Barack Obama and Republican leaders of the House and Senate. The joint committee was a way for all involved to punt the ball after the disgraceful dustup.

Essentially, the six Republicans and six Democrats on the supercommittee are a mini-composite of Congress — a pared-down version of the same deadlocked partisanship that created it. Why, then, does anybody believe it is more likely to come up with bipartisan compromise?

With the 2012 elections looming, tea party activists will be gunning for any Republican who steps out of line. Meanwhile, progressive activists will call out any Democrat who is too cozy with big business or soft on Wall Street.

Republicans are stubbornly beholden to their pledges not to raise taxes. And Democrats are well aware of their peril if they allow slices to be taken out of safety net spending on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. It’s an ideological showdown.

Someone must cry uncle if the supercommittee is to reach the seven-vote majority necessary to put a plan before Congress. In the unlikely event this happens, the full Congress must approve. I think we’ve seen that movie before.

So it shouldn’t be a shock that recent reports have painted a picture of gridlock within the committee. Aides make it sound like they are playing board games, but only within their own party. No fraternizing with the enemy.

This quote, from an anonymous Washington insider, was given to The New York Times: “Basically we are going in circles. It’s going very, very slowly. The only way this will work is if the leaders decide they want to get a deal and lay down parameters. Everybody is sitting around sucking their thumb until they get some guidance on what to do.”

The committee has received nearly 180,000 suggestions on what to do. Maybe a magic formula resides within the heap. But you can bet the “suggestions” that will be weighed most seriously are the ones that came with a nice check attached. The Sunlight Foundation recently reported that two House members of the committee, Republican co-chair Jeb Hensarling of Texas and Democrat Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, reported serious increases in fundraising receipts in the third quarter.

With the emergence of Occupy Wall Street and the Democrats’ new emphasis on jobs legislation, the deficit debate has lost some of its urgency. But if another budget showdown is in the works, the final trump card belongs to Obama. The Bush tax cuts expire in December 2012. Obama can hold out the threat of vetoing any extension unless the GOP gives his party something.

The only question is whether he’ll play that card.

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