McManus: The super committee that wasn't

Here's an assessment from the Republican co-chairman of Congress' unfortunate "super committee" of why the bipartisan panel failed to produce a deficit reduction plan last week:

"We could not bridge the gap between two dramatically competing visions of the role government should play in a free society, the proper purpose and design of the social safety net and the fundamentals of job creation and economic growth," wrote Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas).

Is that all?

In retrospect, it should have been apparent from the start that an ad hoc committee of six Republicans and six Democrats, working in secret against a short deadline, probably wasn't the right place to make massive changes in tax and healthcare law. There was just too much distance between them.

Republicans asked the six Democratic members, at various times, if they wouldn't like to abolish President Obama's healthcare law, or turn Medicare into a voucher system, or raise the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 67.

In turn, the Democrats asked the Republicans if they wouldn't like to abandon the one core principle that has held their party together over the last decade: resistance to tax increases.

Naturally, each side has blamed the other for their failure. But there wasn't enough time for either side to win support within their own caucuses — or from their own voters — for the kind of "grand bargain" that would trade tax increases for healthcare cuts.

The panel faced another timing problem too: The real deadline for action wasn't looming. Yes, the super committee was required to complete its work by last week, in time for Congress to act this year. But the real drop-dead date for action isn't until January 2013, when automatic spending cuts kick in. Members of Congress knew that there would be little real-world penalty if they failed to reach agreement, so that's what happened.

And it's an election year, another reason neither side felt much pressure to compromise. Republicans think they might own the whole government — the House, the Senate and the presidency — a year from now, so why agree to tax increases now? On the other side, many Democrats fear that accepting deep cuts in Medicare would doom their chances of keeping the Senate and winning the House; to them, compromise looked riskier than staying put.

With all those factors stacked against it, it's almost impressive that the super committee got anywhere at all. By mid-November, each side had exchanged three rounds of offers and counteroffers. Democrats offered significant cuts in Medicare, but only if they could get sizable tax increases in return. Republicans offered to accept increases in tax revenue, but only if they could get a guarantee that the big tax cuts enacted under President George W. Bush would be made permanent. In other words, each side accepted the principle that it must compromise on its most cherished issue.

What next?

Under the deal that set up the super committee, Congress agreed to enact $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction over 10 years. Without an agreement by the super committee, automatic cuts in defense and domestic spending will be imposed to reach that target, unless Congress comes up with a Plan B by January 2013 to stop its doomsday machine and rewrite the cuts.

The logjam could work in the Democrats' favor, for two reasons. First, the Bush tax cuts will expire at the end of 2012 unless new legislation is passed; if Republicans want to preserve any of those cuts, they'll need to make a deal. Obama and most Democrats don't want all the tax cuts to expire (they want to keep them for families earning less than $250,000 a year), but full expiration doesn't terrify them as much as it does Republicans.

Second, the automatic spending cuts on defense look more painful to Republicans, most of whom want to increase military spending, than to Democrats. But that doesn't mean Democrats will feel no discomfort. Obama's Defense secretary, Leon Panetta, has said the military cuts would be the equivalent of "shooting ourselves in the head," a statement that will be hard to walk back from. Democrats won't like the automatic cuts in domestic spending either.

There's already a bipartisan group of senators, the maverick "Gang of Six," that is volunteering to produce a new compromise package. They tried to sell one last summer — with a whopping $3.7 trillion in deficit reduction, three times what the super committee was aiming for — but they got sidelined by party leaders who weren't ready to buy their upstart plan back then.

The Gang of Six plan won't make anybody happy. It's modeled on the bipartisan proposal offered last year by former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) and former Clinton Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles. It includes tax increases bigger than most Republicans say they'll accept, and cuts in future Medicare and Social Security payments that liberal Democrats find abhorrent. It's also fuzzy around the edges; the Gang of Six never actually settled on the fine print. But it's the best starting point we have.

If the Gang of Six can produce a deal in the Senate — a big "if" — then the burden will be on the Republican-controlled House to pass or block it. In an election year, it could be dangerous for either side to stand in the way of a deficit-cutting compromise. Unlike the short-lived super committee, the deficit saga is far from over.

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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