Super shameful on Capitol Hill

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Conceived in cowardice, Congress’ deficit reduction “super committee” has lived down to expectations by failing to reach a bipartisan compromise. Even if it had succeeded in cutting its goal of $1.2 trillion over the next decade, it would have fallen short of the $4-trillion reduction over the same period that experts say is necessary to right the economy. But an agreement by the super committee would have been a significant first step toward fiscal responsibility.

The outlines of an agreement were well known: revenue increases coupled with significant cuts in entitlement spending. Higher taxes would address deficits in the near term, while cuts in entitlements would provide a down payment on more significant economizing in the future. The wisdom of such a compromise was obvious to everyone but the two parties and their representatives on the committee.

Engaging in self-caricature, the Republicans insisted on no new taxes, a posture they modified slightly to propose $250 billion in new revenues, some offset by their other proposals, including making the Bush-era tax cuts permanent. Democrats, meanwhile, irresponsibly resisted meaningful cuts in domestic programs. Hobbled by their dogmatic opposition to taxes, the Republicans were arguably more intransigent. But both parties deserve blame for the anticlimactic outcome of the committee’s work. The super committee was supposed to cut through the partisan pettiness that prevented a deal as part of the process to raise the federal debt ceiling. Instead, “super” proved to be SOP.


What happens now? Supposedly the failure of the super committee will lead to $1.2 trillion in across-the-board cuts (with some exceptions, like Social Security, which will be cut 2% a year). But now that the so-called trigger has failed to force an agreement, members of Congress are scrambling to repeal or revise it. Especially zealous are supporters of military spending. Responding to alarms by Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) are drafting legislation to prevent “devastating” cuts in Pentagon spending. With less hope of success, Democrats are likely to try to roll back cuts in domestic spending. (President Obama says he opposes tampering with the trigger, but he may find it hard to resist his own Defense secretary.)

What makes the super committee’s collapse so frustrating is that a consensus seemed to be building in favor of deficit reduction. It was reflected in the report of a presidential commission and in negotiations between Obama and House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio). Now, with an election looming, the possibility of change seems remote. That isn’t just disappointing, it’s shameful.