Super Committee: Another Exercise in Futility?
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The Fiscal Times
September 22, 2011

Absent some dramatic turnabout, the two parties appear to be setting up the vaunted “Super Committee”  for a potentially colossal setback this fall as it searches for a compromise on debt reduction. The 12-member, bipartisan House and Senate panel is charged with identifying at least $1.2 trillion of fresh deficit reduction that Congress can vote on before the end of the year.

But even as the joint committee is meeting and assembling a staff, President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, have laid down mutually exclusive markers that would make it virtually impossible for the committee's six Democrats and six Republicans to reach a compromise. Obama this week vowed to veto any long-term deficit reduction package that doesn’t include higher taxes on the wealthy and corporations, while Boehner has repeatedly decreed that tax increases were “off the table.” Obama would also leave out reforms to Social Security.

If the panel, co-chaired by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Tex., doesn’t meet its mandate, there will be automatic, across the board cuts in defense and domestic programs other than Social Security, Medicaid and veterans’ benefits totaling $1.2 trillion.

Just yesterday, Boehner said in a speech that while the Republicans and the White House may be able to find “common ground” on a few of the president’s proposals, including small business tax deductions and infrastructure projects, that raising taxes was out of the question. “Raising taxes on the American people is not the way to get our economy going again,” Boehner said.

And rather than standing back and giving the new committee breathing room to chart a bipartisan strategy for meeting its Nov. 23 deadline to send recommendations to Congress , Democrats, Republicans and advocacy groups are swamping the fledgling panel with decrees, demands, requests and analytical tasks that would be challenging even to a handful of permanent House and Senate committees.

“The language is not helpful if you’re trying to get a deal,” Erskine Bowles, the co-chairman of a presidential fiscal commission, said of the dueling political rhetoric between the White House and congressional Republicans. “It might appeal to the base, but the language itself isn’t helpful.”

House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., complained recently that practically every week, Obama “puts new criteria onto the committee” for deficit reduction and tax policy, without giving members a chance to “see where they are able to go.” Former Reagan White House Budget Director David Stockman warned yesterday that the committee could collapse of its own weight if the two sides aren’t careful in the way they are piling on. And Joseph Minarik, a former chief economist for the House Budget Committee and the Clinton White House budget office, said the verdict is out whether the joint committee will succeed or fail.

Obama and congressional leaders off-loaded responsibility for identifying additional reductions in spending and entitlements to the Super Committee.

“If people decide they want a solution and are willing to put everything on the table, they have got all the tools and all the legislative authority they need to reach an agreement,” Minarik told The Fiscal Times. “If people impose exclusive, mutually inconsistent directives, then it’s highly unlikely that these 12 people are going to go off on their own and break new ground in conflict with their own leadership and come up with an overall plan.”

Providing another reminder of how difficult it is to get a consensus on anything in Congress, a bill to keep the government funded past September 30 failed in the House Wednesday night, 230 to 195, because of sharp divisions within the Republican majority over funding disaster aid and other issues. Boehner and other House leaders were stunned by the more than 40 Republican defections, and were scrambling today to come up with a way to avert a government shutdown.

By creating the super committee as part of last summer’s bitterly negotiated deal to reduce the long term deficit by nearly $1 trillion while raising the debt ceiling,  the White House and congressional leaders essentially off-loaded responsibility for identifying additional reductions in spending and entitlement programs to the Super Committee. For now, Obama, Boehner, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and other leaders can drop their suggestions into the super committee’s “in box.”

Washington Editor and D.C. Bureau Chief Eric Pianin is a veteran journalist who has covered the federal government, congressional budget and tax issues, and national politics. He spent over 25 years at The Washington Post.