Debt panel was doomed from outset

In many ways, the supercommittee was doomed from the start.

The failure of the much-hyped congressional debt panel brought about a wave of denunciation from across the political spectrum on Monday, but few political advocates and observers claimed to be surprised.

The wide ideological chasm between the parties, the lack of independent dealmakers on the panel, an upcoming presidential election and a hands-off White House all contributed to the supercommittee’s monumental whiff, congressional aides and political analysts said Monday.

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But perhaps nothing hampered the supercommittee’s prospects more than a faulty trigger and the absence of apocalyptic fears. The government would not shut down if the panel didn’t act, the nation would not default, and despite its failure and a dip in the stock market, most Americans will still enjoy a turkey dinner on Thursday.

“Unfortunately, nothing gets done in Congress these days unless it absolutely has to, unless there are calamitous consequences from inaction,” said former Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), a co-founder of the No Labels group, which promotes bipartisanship and congressional reform. “In this case, the Sword of Damocles was more in theory than in fact.”



That sword is the so-called “sequestration,” the backstop of $1.2 trillion in politically painful cuts to Medicare providers and the Department of Defense that congressional leaders included to prod the supercommittee to strike a deal. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has said the sequester was designed to be ugly “because we didn’t want anybody to go there.”


But evidently, it wasn’t ugly enough. The sequester is not so much a trigger as it is a ticking bomb with a fuse that takes 13 months to detonate, or to be defused. The $1.2 trillion in automatic cuts do not take place in 2012, but in 2013, after the next presidential election and the installation of a new Congress.

“It would have been better to have placed the Sword of Damocles closer to the head of Congress,” said Bill Galston of the Brookings Institution, a former adviser to President Clinton who also helped to start No Labels.

Indeed, promises to undo the sequester, and particularly the defense cuts, started coming in even before the supercommittee had called it quits. The Republican co-chairman of the panel, Rep. Jeb Hensarling (Texas), said he would try to find a different combination of cuts over the next year. The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), issued a statement vowing to dismantle the defense cuts minutes after the markets closed on Monday.

“I will not be the Armed Services chairman who presides over crippling our military. I will not let these sequestration cuts stand,” McKeon said as he referenced the warning of President Obama’s Defense secretary, Leon Panetta, that the Pentagon reductions would “hollow out” the armed forces.

As the panel’s failure became apparent, blame flowed everywhere. Boehner’s office circulated a memo targeting Obama for his push for the committee to add jobs legislation to its mandate and for threatening to veto a plan that included significant entitlement cuts without corresponding tax increases on the wealthy.

“The president designed a political strategy that doomed the committee to failure first by insisting the committee include $450 billion of his failed stimulus policies in any agreement, making deficit reduction much harder, and second by issuing a veto threat warning he would not accept an agreement that did not include a job-killing tax increase,” the Boehner memo said.

Political analysts also questioned the makeup of the committee. Most of the members congressional leaders appointed to the panel were seen as loyal to those leaders and closely aligned with the bases of the parties. The composition might have made it easier to sell a potential deal to the full Republican and Democratic caucuses, but might have made it harder to strike an agreement in the first place.

“The people who were put on the committee were not notable for their independence,” Galston said. He noted that no members of the Senate’s Gang of Six were on the panel, and the Republican members on the supercommittee who had previously served on the Simpson-Bowles commission had voted against that bipartisan, $4 trillion plan.

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Still, Bayh said the supercommittee members were “good, well-intentioned people trapped in a dysfunctional system.”

“I don’t think it mattered who was in the room. They were all proxies for the leadership, who in turn were proxies for the bases of the two parties, who are very estranged and intransigent on the fundamental underlying issues of entitlement reforms and revenue enhancements,” Bayh said. 

Politically, many Democrats were wary of any deal on entitlements that would undermine their election-year argument that Republicans want to dismantle the social safety net. And Republicans weighed the prospect of a tax compromise against the possibility that they would gain the White House and Senate in 2012, giving them their best chance of passing their own fiscal vision into law.

Republicans accused Obama of a lack of leadership and said he didn’t want a deal that would prevent him from attacking a “do-nothing” Congress in his reelection campaign. Obama stayed far away, making a trip to Asia and Australia as the panel neared its deadline. 

Democrats countered that Republican members remained captive to the anti-tax pledge all of them signed, and that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) had never wavered from his assertion that his top priority was making Obama a one-term president. McConnell named his top deputy, Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), to the committee, and Kyl reportedly hampered the chances for a deal.

Still, there were some who had expected the committee to succeed.

“I thought it was going to work,” said Alex Brill, a research fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute and a former chief economist for the House Ways and Means Committee. “I thought [the supercommittee] was constructed in a way that maximized the probability of success. Not guaranteed, but maximized.”

— Erik Wasson contributed to this report.