When the idea of the so-called super committee was first suggested, it earned jeers of derision from pundits and observers who questionedwhy a panel of leadership-selected lawmakers could somehow trim the deficit in ways that President Obama and Congress couldn't. The committee, which was part of the compromise to raise the debt ceiling and must find at least $1.2 trillion worth of savings, was seen as a way for Congress to avoid taking responsibility for the debt problem. Now, with the committee's deadline to find those cuts approaching, it has done little to shake that impression--or to reassure people that any sort of compromise is possible in today's Washington.
The super committee faces a legal deadline of Nov. 23 to agree on a proposal and present it to Congress, which would then have until Dec, 23 to pass it into law. But because it will take a while for the Congressional Budget Office to estimate the cost of any legislation the super committee considers, the deadline may in reality be much sooner. CBO director Doug Elmendorf told the committee that his office would likely need specifics by early November, leaving almost no time for the committee members to work through stubborn ideological divides.
During the entire debt ceiling crisis this summer, Republicans never budged from their refusal to consider tax hikes, and neither party got close to bridging that divide. Today, the super committee is hamstrung by the same basic partisan divide. In a speech in Louisville today, House Speaker John Boehner said he had "high hopes" that the panel could find "common ground." But Boehner drew a sharp definition of common ground, contrasting it with the concept of compromise. "Common ground doesn't mean compromising on your principles," Boehner said. "Common ground means finding the places where your agenda overlaps with that of the other party, locking arms, and getting it done—without violating your principles." In other words, rather than trying to figure out some way to cross the partisan divide over taxes, the super committee should focus on other issues where there's agreement.
Boehner uses the 1996 welfare reform bill as an example of how this type of thinking can lead to significant policy achievements. It's a useful idea, to a point. But in this case, there's so little common ground on fiscal policy that it's hard to see how it could reach the super committee's goals. And major overhauls to the tax structure and budget, like the 1986 Tax Reform Act, involved both parties giving concessions over issues they stubbornly stick to today.
At least one senator thinks there's a chance. Sen. Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat, told MSNBC that he thought the chances for a deal were improving. Warner was a member of the "Gang of Six," the bipartisan group of senators who tried, and failed, to pass a debt reduction package during the summer. Warner said that support from that group, as well as the 44 senators who signed a letter urging the super committee to "go big," have improved the prospects.
The little bits of news that have trickled out about the committee have left little reassurance. Democrats reportedly offered what they view as a reasonable and ambitious proposal with revenue hikes and entitlement changes, but were rebuffed by Republicans. Republicans offered a more modest plan with much less in new tax revenues, and claim that the Democrats' efforts are little more than posturing to avoid blame when the committee runs aground.
About the most encouraging thing at this point is that the discussions are still happening, despite the bad blood. So far, the committee has been spared the high-profile negotiation walk-outs which seemed to characterize the summer talks over the debt ceiling. Perhaps that's because the stakes are lower. If the super committee fails, it won't mean a national default or a government shutdown. Rather, across-the-board cuts in defense and social spending will automatically be triggered, but won't go into effect until 2013, giving Congress plenty of time to repeal them. "The fact that the automatic cuts don't kick in until 2013 gives Congress plenty of time to dismantle this sort of Damocles contraption," says Bill Galston, a former advisor to President Clinton and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.