It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, No, It’s a SUPERCOMMITTEE! Or maybe not.

The new “Supercommittee” is supposed to be “super” in two ways.  First, it is designed to succeed where Congress as a whole failed, coming up with a plan to cut the US Federal budget deficit by $1.5 trillion dollars (in addition to the $917 billion in unspecified cuts set as a target in the debt-ceiling bill) that will pass Congress.  Second, it has ‘super powers’ in that the plan that it proposes can only be voted up or down, not modified by amendment.

But will it work?  It seems impossible — especially given that all six Republican members have signed a pledge that the deficit reduction plan will include no new taxes.

As every commentator has observed, it is impossible to make substantial progress on the budget deficit without either raising taxes or making major cuts in the largest (military) and fastest growing (medicare and medicaid) elements in federal spending.  So in some ways this is like having a supercommittee assigned to come up with a way to put wings on pigs — just having a supercommittee does not mean that something impossible suddenly becomes possible.

So what may happen?  The committee may deadlock, in which case severe cuts will fall on military and discretionary spending automatically.  That may be the best outcome, because it WILL reduce spending, it WILL target the only logical places to achieve major cuts, and everyone can avoid responsibility, and blame the other side for this outcome.

The only way the supercommittee will come up with something useful is if Obama gets aggressive and holds it accountable.  The President has to say — “every poll shows that two-thirds of the American people want a major reduction in our deficit, and they want to achieve it with a combination of budget cuts and tax increases on the highest income brackets.  Either this supercommittee responds to the will of the American people or I will hold it accountable.”  (See my post “Lessons in Negotiation for Obama”).

Unfortunately, that has not been Obama’s style.  His nature seems to be to wait, assuming that the facts of the situation will inevitably propel the subcommittee to a ‘reasonable’ outcome.  But the problem here is that the most reasonable outcome for the Republicans on the committee is to hold fast to their no-tax position and claim that any failure is wholly due to Obama’s insistence on raising taxes in the midst of a recession (never mind that Republicans are in favor of a much larger tax increase on ordinary workers by opposing extension of the social security tax cuts).  So if Obama sits back and waits for a ‘reasonable’ outcome, he will get another defeat.

About jackgoldstone

Hazel Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University
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