Five reasons why the congressional supercommittee failed

Congress’ goal when it created this panel was not to resolve a fiscal mess. It was merely to buy time so it could avoid painfully tough choices.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Supercommittee Co-Chair Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., arrives to meet in the Capitol Hill office of Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., with other members of the deficit reduction panel, Monday, Nov. 21, 2011, on Capitol Hill in Washington. According to reports, the committee will not meet its Thanksgiving deadline to come up with $1.2 trillion in deficit cuts.

To the surprise of few, Congress’ super committee is on the brink of failure–unable to agree on $1.2 trillion in budget savings as required by last summer’s debt limit deal. But the panel was doomed from the start. Here are five reasons why:

The parties could not bridge their theological differences. Mainstream Democrats believe government should play an important role in the economy and provide a safety net for the disadvantaged. They also want high-income people to pay more taxes to fund those programs. Republicans profoundly disagree. They oppose most government interference in markets as well as many social safety net programs, and they believe taxes are too high. There was little chance 12 rank-and-file politicians could ever lead their parties across that chasm.

Republicans would not budge off of their no-tax pledge. In the end, this was almost certainly the biggest single factor in the committee’s failure. As long as the GOP leadership remains trapped in its commitment to never raise taxes, there will be no serious fiscal agreement. And any Republican who dared to stick his head out of the foxhole and hint at a willingness to consider revenues was barraged with friendly fire. This is exactly what happened to House Speaker John Boehner last summer. And nothing changed this fall.

Democrats tied spending cuts to tax hikes. Democrats were never going to agree to cuts in Medicare and Medicaid without significant GOP concessions on taxes.  With enough cover from Obama, Democrats might have reluctantly moved on those entitlements in exchange for some new revenues. But as the 2012 election neared their unwillingness to take on their own base over big federal spending programs only grew.

The bipartisan leadership was AWOL. Neither President Obama nor either party’s congressional leadership ever pushed very hard for this deal.  It may be that none of them even wanted it, but they surely were unwilling to work for it. It is true that Obama offered his own package of tax hikes and spending reductions, but he never put any weight behind it.  Last summer, Obama allowed himself to be sucked into the black hole of the debt limit battle—and he paid a severe price for his naiveté. This time, Obama learned his lesson. He left the country as talks came down to the wire. Boehner and Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell were hardly more visible. Also among the missing: Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi.

There was never a serious penalty for failure. If lawmakers really wanted to force action by the super committee, they would not have delayed the consequences of inaction ($1.5 trillion in automatic cuts) for more than a year. Imagine telling your teenager that if she doesn’t do her homework tonight she’ll be grounded—in 2013.  As it is, weeks before the deficit panel flopped, powerful lawmakers were already talking about how they’d defuse those spending reductions—especially those targeted at the Pentagon.

Much like the European Community over the past few years, Congress’ goal when it created this panel was not to resolve a fiscal mess, it was merely to buy time so it could avoid painfully tough choices.  And it wasn’t looking to stall only until  this Thanksgiving. It wanted to delay though the 2012 elections. And in that, at least, Congress succeeded gloriously.

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