wasted time

Come Monday, it will be all right. Because that’s when the supercommittee must complete its proposal to cut the bare minimum of $1.2 trillion and send it to the Congressional Budget Office for scoring to meet its Nov. 23 deadline. We know how badly the 12 members of the panel wish to fulfill their obligation, to succeed where countless debt commissions have failed and to avert another credit downgrade. And we know they are desperate to assure voters that Congress still functions, that policy comes before politics, that our leaders aren’t ignoring the chilling lessons of Greece and Italy and that they simply won’t abide another punt and let another year worsen our fiscal crisis just to wait for the next election.

Surely those draconian defense cuts that an impasse would trigger automatically are reason enough for members of both parties to reach consensus — the $600 billion that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned Tuesday would lead to a “hollow force.”

Not really. No matter what the committee does, the day after will bring Thanksgiving, not default. And the dirty secret on Capitol Hill is that there is no trigger, because those automatic cuts will never happen. The “sequestration” written into the debt deal that created the supercommittee to find $1.2 trillion in savings — or else — can’t take effect in January 2013, as scheduled, if it is rescinded in the lame-duck session next December. And no matter who wins, those cuts are gone.

What would happen if a miracle occurred and a deal was produced this week? It would likely die in the House. Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), former head of the conservative Club for Growth and a supercommittee member, is facing opposition to his plan to trim deductions and close loopholes in exchange for a permanent extension of the Bush-era tax cuts for those in the top brackets as well as lowering rates for those brackets from 35 percent to 28 percent. That would mean a hefty tax cut for upper-income earners. But that didn’t pass muster with conservatives who have signed pledges not to support any new taxes. 

Democrats offered their own plan to cut $2 trillion, including $400 billion in cuts to Medicare and Medicaid. Yet Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), who is on the supercommittee, said on “Fox News Sunday” that Democrats hadn’t “coalesced around a plan.” Not surprisingly, is now involved, planning nationwide protests against any meaningful changes to entitlement programs. And then there are Democratic lawmakers happy to admit they prefer failure to a debt compromise. Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), told The Washington Post, “I hope they don’t get a deal.”

It appears the pressure has worked. Days before the deadline, there is no indication that the kind of grand bargain necessary to bring spending back to 19 percent of GDP, from 25 percent, and revenues from a low of 14 percent back to the norm of 18 percent, is in the offing. There is no indication that the unsustainable trajectories of Medicare and Medicaid will be slowed or reversed, or that the tax reform both parties claim is critical is even possible. What there are indications of is the committee’s willingness to pass a plan to pass the buck and send revenue and spending-cut targets back to the committees of jurisdiction. 

That is simply another year of wasted time, more debt and millions of dollars in lobbying, as politicians from both parties squabble publicly instead of privately, posture for the cameras and the interest groups and then punt decisions until after the next election. And the signal it will send to markets, allies and even enemies around the world could be devastating.

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.