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Editorial: What the supercommittee’s failure says about Congress

The inability of the congressional “supercommittee” to reach agreement on how to reduce the nation’s deficit by $1.2 trillion over a decade corresponds directly with a recent New York Times/NBCpoll showing a record 84 percent of Americans disapprove of how Congress is doing its job, and that its approval rating has hit rock bottom at just 9 percent. That’s an all-time low; less support than even President Richard M. Nixon had during Watergate.
It is not, however, surprising that the supercommittee failed to reach agreement. Rather, in retrospect, it seems almost as if it were expected. The committee was initiated in August when Congress — at the last possible moment (and even then, not soon enough to prevent Standard & Poor’s from lowering the nation’s credit rating) — averted default on the national debt by extending the debt limit. The caveat to that deal was creation of a 12-member bipartisan committee that would do what Congress couldn’t: reach a compromise on spending cuts and new revenue to lower deficit spending without wrecking the economy.
What’s maddening is not that it can’t be done, but that both sides think they have the right answer and don’t have the political will to compromise. As Sen. Patrick Leahy says, “we are seeing the paralyzing effects of a my-way-or-nothing mentality.”
To understand the committee’s failure, it is instructive to review the attempts at compromise.
In general, the discussion started with Democrats willing to cut spending on entitlement programs (those that help the lower and middle class, like Social Security, Medicare, education spending) as long as tax cuts on the wealthiest Americans were allowed to end and perhaps rise. Republicans insisted that the entire $1.2 trillion must come from spending cuts with no tax increases at any level.
President Barack Obama had already proposed a “grand bargain” back in July in which he proposed cutting $1 trillion in domestic and defense spending, plus $650 billion from Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, if Republicans would agree to new tax revenues of $1.2 billion. Republicans said no. In September, Obama offered to reduce the deficit by $3.6 trillion from the deficit, with 60 percent from spending cuts and only 40 percent from new revenues. Again, Republicans rejected the compromise.
In mid-September, committee Democrats offered to cut $3 trillion from the deficit with only one-third of it coming from revenues and the other two-thirds coming from spending cuts. Those cuts included $475 billion from Medicare and Medicaid over the next decade — that’s eight-times the level proposed by President Obama in September — a further sign of a willingness to compromise. Yet, Republicans wouldn’t budge.
The Republicans tried to take credit for a proposal calling for $300 billion in new revenues, along with spending cuts, but the proposal was tied to making the Bush tax cuts permanent and lowering the top tax rate from 35 percent to 28 percent, which would have added something like $4 trillion to the deficit over the next decade. The offer was, as the New York Timessaid, “risible.”
The result is forced spending cuts of $1.2 trillion from the military, education, health care and other priorities over the next decade beginning next fall (2012). Plus, the Bush tax cuts will end as of 2012. That dual whammy is expected to reduce the national deficit by more than half of the current $1.3 trillion gap between annual revenue and spending. But most economists also agree that such a sharp drop in federal spending, along with an end to tax cuts for the middle class will send the economy into recession, which would, once again, run up the national deficit.
The only silver lining is that it will force a serious discussion of cuts in defense spending, along with the Republicans’ blind insistence that taxes can’t be raised on the wealthy — a GOP mantra that is coming under more intense scrutiny by many Republicans as well.
Take William Cohen, a Republican congressman from Maine who later served as defense secretary under President Bill Clinton from 1997-2001, in a piece he wrote for the New York Timesyesterday: “Republicans needed to go much farther to avert the possibility of disastrous cuts to our military strength. Their failure to do so is directly responsible for Monday’s failure of the ‘supercommittee’…. I have long been concerned that my party’s rigid anti-tax ideology is harming the fiscal health of our nation. Now it is harming our national security as well… Congressional Republicans need to look back at this sad episode and decide: Do they care more about keeping ‘a no tax pledge’ or giving our troops the tools they need to protect the nation?”
Amazingly, those Republicans in the no-compromise, anti-tax mode are the ones least likely to compromise, despite what harm may come to the country or what the polls seem to say. And that’s what makes the current political process seem unworkable. When a recent Quinnipiac University poll reports that 44 percent of American voters blame Republicans, while 38 percent blame Democrats for their failure to reduce the deficit, with like numbers coming from just independent voters, one might think the political calculus would change. But ideology among those very conservative Republicans has changed the dynamic.
For them it’s all politics and no compromise, and they have the public’s approval ratings to prove it.
Angelo S. Lynn

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