Failure, it turns out, is an option. In fact, it sounds more and more like an imperative.
“I’m worried you’re going to fail,” Erskine Bowles, the Democratic chairman of President Obama’s debt- and deficit-reduction commission, told the super committee on Tuesday.
Hours earlier, Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., told a National Journal panel on the 2012 election that he fully expected the super committee to fail and expected all of the underlying political and policy issues to be settled, at least in part, by the 2012 election.
Because that’s worked so well before.
The super committee’s deadline for voting on a proposal to reduce the deficit by at least $1.2 trillion over 10 years is Nov. 23. For it to be scored credibly and coherently by the Congressional Budget Office, the deadline is probably Nov. 9. But there is no sign—not one—that the committee is close to making a decision on that kind of schedule. In fact, all available evidence suggests the committee will fret over its proposal right up until Nov. 23 and leave the scoring for a later date—if it’s able to reach a 7-5 majority at all.
We can all, of course, be comforted by a public review of deficit-reduction proposals that are nearly a year old. Testifying on Tuesday were Bowles; former Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo.; former Clinton budget director Alice Rivlin; and former Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M. Simpson and Bowles had theirs ($4 trillion in deficit reduction by 2020). Rivlin and Domenici had theirs ($4.5 trillion in deficit reduction with $877 billion in debt reduction by 2020). Neither is new nor poorly understood. Neither contains a single budgetary insight or revelation any of the 12 super committee members has not heard before. Both commissions, however, made choices.
Choices. Policy choices. Both raised taxes and cut spending. It doesn’t matter how, which is to say it doesn’t matter how unless and until the super committee contemplates deficit reduction of that size. That means $4 trillion over 10 years. But the super committee is clawing around looking for about one-fourth of that. Bottom line: The magnitude of change to tax and spending policy contemplated by both commissions is far larger than anything the super committee is looking at now. Bowles told the super committee $4 trillion is not “the maximum” or the “ideal” figure. It is, he said with a hard glare, “the minimum.”
The only reason the super committee is eye-balling $1.2 trillion in 10-year deficit reduction is because that is the threshold established by the debt-ceiling deal negotiated in August. That deal was a political compromise designed to address an immediate fiscal crisis—the potential for a U.S. government default. But past need not be prologue, and the estimable Bowles, Simpson, Rivlin, and Domenici practically begged the super committee to do more. To see more. To risk more.
“You all know what you have to do,” Simpson said.
Bowles complimented the super committee on controlling “leaks” about what it’s thinking about. But he’s grown weary with the shrinking horizons of the panel’s deficit-reduction goals—$1.2 trillion in patchwork savings and tax code tweaks.
“That would be disastrous,” Bowles said, adding it would indicate the United States was satisfied with becoming a “second-rate power.”
The super committee is toying with one-quarter of the change recommended by Simpson-Bowles or Rivlin-Domenici. That means the most powerful committee ever created in the history of Congress to confront the issue of runaway deficits—a committee invested with the power to write a bill shielded from a filibuster and any and all amendments—is on the verge of failing to even suggest a fraction of the change two bipartisan panels tell them is the bare minimum.
Interestingly, the super committee member who has carved out the slenderest public profile and remains the toughest to read—Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.—made it clear he knows the following things:
- The committee has unprecedented power.
- $1.2 trillion in 10-year deficit reduction wouldn’t satisfy global bond markets, would trigger a crisis in confidence in American government, and could prolong the nation’s economic malaise.
- Tax reform could generate $1 trillion in revenue without raising rates and the super committee could create a timetable for Congress to follow next year.
- Cost-saving reform of Medicare is possible without swapping its fee-for-service mechanism now for a premium-support subsidy.
Kerry could emerge as the key figure in super committee deliberations. He will turn 68 next month. His term expires in 2014. It’s unclear if he will run again, but even if he does and prevails it appears he knows he may never have a better chance to create a durable legacy on fiscal policy, one that could augment his solid Senate work on foreign policy and national security. This is by no means clear. But there is something interesting and possibly determinative about Kerry’s line of questioning and the role he may play in building the seven-vote majority. His demeanor bears the gravity of a man who came tantalizingly close to being president.
As each party knows, it only takes one Democrat or one Republican to cross over. Whether Kerry will be it, only he knows. But he’s leaving tantalizing clues in public view.
This article appears in the Nov. 2, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily.