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The not-so-super committee

Posted: November 27, 2011 10:50 a.m.
Updated: November 28, 2011 5:00 a.m.

An old joke says that a camel is a horse designed by committee. That’s more than I can say for the congressional “supercommittee.” It was supposed to come up with a proposal to cut the deficit. It didn’t even produce a camel. Just a lot of the stuff horses and camels leave behind.

The failure was enough to make me long for the days of the “smoke-filled room,” although without the smoke. The original smoke-filled room of legend was in Chicago’s Blackstone Hotel, where a small group of powerful senators gathered to arrange the nomination of Republican Warren G. Harding for president in 1920. I’m not saying he was the best choice they could have made (he wasn’t), but at least they got it made.

The difference is that the old elitists knew how to cut a deal. In the smoke-free rooms of today’s politically polarized Washington, the art of compromise seems for now to be all but lost.

The supercommittee was created to break a deadlock between Democrats and Republicans over raising the national debt ceiling, a matter that used to be a pretty routine. But today’s divided Congress agreed to raise the debt ceiling only after referring the larger deficit problem and its thorny tax issues to a new Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, popularly known as the supercommittee.

The 12-member supercommittee, evenly divided between the parties and two houses of Congress, apparently received its catchy nickname from lawmakers who wanted to make it sound like something more than an excuse to avoid making tough decisions.

In short, it was doomed from the start. It was long on partisans and lacking independent dealmakers.

Worse, the supercommittee’s much-vaunted “trigger” isn’t much of a trigger. Nothing concentrates the mind like a firm deadline. But the supercommittee’s Nov. 23 deadline to avoid automatic across-the-board budget cuts was not much of an incentive in the Washington sense. The actual cuts would not into effect until 2013, after a new Congress and, if President Barack Obama’s luck runs out, a new president. In Washington, that’s a lifetime away. The supercommittee faced no fear of a government shutdown or default. Why hurry?

After the supercommittee’s super-collapse, the blamestorm began. Each party blamed the other, and Republicans blamed Obama for lack of “leadership.” He stayed away from negotiations partly at the request of Democratic committee members. Yet if Obama had been more engaged, would it have made a difference? If his effort failed, he would bear some of the blame anyway, and Republicans had little wish to help him succeed.

President Obama vows he will veto any effort to circumvent the trigger’s automatic cuts with anything less than a full deficit-reduction package. He’s still pushing the “balanced” approach he proposed months ago, a mix of taxes and cuts, which polls show most voters prefer to the Republicans’ all-cuts, no-new-taxes approach.

That’s the approach upon which activist Grover Norquist, the head of Americans for Tax Reform, insists. He threatens to serve any Republican who breaks his anti-tax pledge with two of an incumbent’s least favorite words, “primary challenge,” and other efforts to unseat them. Expressing a view widely shared by Democrats, supercommittee member Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts called Norquist the “13th member of this committee without being there.”

Of course, Norquist, smiling innocently, humbly insisted in a CBS “60 Minutes” interview Sunday that it was “the voters,” not him, who were holding Republican feet to the fire. We’ll see.

Nobody likes taxes. But for a government that works, delivers the services we want and balances its budgets, polls indicate that most of us would be willing to pay the price. That shouldn’t be too much to ask. In fact, it really would be super.

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