When I left the White House beat to cover Congress, I told people what the biggest difference was between the two beats. People in the White House and Congress lie to you, I would say; the difference is that on the Hill it’s not the same lie told by the same seven people.
That was true until the super committee was created. Now, instead of politicians lying to their constituents and reporters, they are lying to themselves. Not rationalizing, or trimming the truth, or speaking in euphemisms. Lying. Bald. Faced. Lying.
The super committee is a thought experiment gone awry. This is, by the way, its only redeeming feature—that it’s gone awry, not that it was a thought experiment. The “thought” (seems too charitable, but I’ll go with it) was that a select group of 12 lawmakers drawn in equal numbers from each party and each chamber could defy the laws of political physics and do the following: Make tax rates, kept stubbornly low by Republicans, go up and make entitlement spending, kept stubbornly high by Democrats, go down.
That the physics governing these policy positions was something quaint called an election (actually, a series of elections dating back at least until the rise of the modern GOP congressional majority in 1994) seemed not to matter to its architects. This is but one of the super committee’s many inherent flaws. For the committee to “succeed”—another word I use cautiously because it positively defies definition in this context—it must persuade at least one Democrat or Republican to change sides. That means a single transitory vote of one lawmaker can neuter an entire party’s philosophical approach to taxation, entitlements, or discretionary spending.
The committee, therefore, is empowered for the very purpose of nullifying elections and party philosophy. You might ask: “What if the super committee unanimously supported a deficit-cutting deal?” You might just as well ask: “What if a blizzard closed the Washington Monument in July?” “What if quarterbacks threw croquet mallets instead of footballs?” “What if Katy Perry could sing?”
The supers were convened around the concept of the narrow majority. The temptation set before it was purely procedural. Be not afraid, the super members were told: If you do cut a deal, those zanies in the other party can’t kill it with amendments or a filibuster. The committee was invested with unprecedented procedural access to the House and Senate floors. In every legislative body, mastery of process often leads to mastery of result.
The architects of the super committee—House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid—greased the procedural skids for the supers in ways never seen or contemplated before. They essentially announced to the committee and the attentive world—read Wall Street generally and bond-rating agencies specifically—that they had already straitjacketed the lawmakers most likely to sink a compromise.
This was supposed to make the work easier. The 12 super-committee members were given a magic carpet upon which to ride over the procedural mire, a cudgel to beat insensate all filibuster trolls. Process can trump politics—but only when policy comes together first. This hasn’t happened, which is why this is an awful thought experiment. Congress will soon learn elevating process over policy as a means of sidestepping politics is delusional.
Happily, this is the biggest unintended success of the super committee. As constructed, it could have become a vehicle to continuously subvert congressional authority, erasing the necessary regional and policy-based power centers that arise from the committee system. Instead, the super committee writhes in agony before an utterly arbitrary Thanksgiving-eve deadline (turkey jokes are just too damn easy, folks). It’s now considering a “two-step” process of proposing entitlement cuts or tax increases (or tax-code reform that would yield more revenue while lowering rates) that House and Senate committees would then draft and pass. This “two-step” process has a name: regular order. What happens under regular order is a group of powerful lawmakers set an agenda and the committees work their will in pursuit of a legislative compromise. It’s the way Congress has worked, by and large, since March 4, 1789.
Alongside this “two-step” idea, panicky questions have arisen. What’s the penalty if the “regular” committees don’t do what the super committee recommends? This has it all backwards. America has not sorted out the politics of big-ticket deficit reduction. There is no consensus—flimsy or durable—about how much to tax, whom to tax, or whose benefits to cut and by how much. That’s what elections accomplish, or partially accomplish.
The next election is in 2012. The sequester won’t start until 2013. This is not a coincidence.
This article appears in the Nov. 16, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily.