The super committee goes out not with a bang—or a whimper, either—but, at best, with a sheepish, off-camera press release.
What began as the stop-gap measure to get Congress through the debt-ceiling crisis—the formation of an extraordinary bipartisan super committee charged with recommending at least $1.2 trillion in cuts from the federal budget over the next decade—ended on Monday with its leaders admitting that it’s hopelessly deadlocked and incapable of making recommendations to the rest of Congress.
"After months of hard work and intense deliberations, we have come to the conclusion today that it will not be possible to make any bipartisan agreement available to the public before the committee’s deadline," the co-chairs of the 12-member panel said.
Early Monday evening, President Obama stepped to the microphones in the White House briefing room to chide Congress and declare that he would veto any attempt to undo those automatic sequestration cuts. "There is no easy off ramp," the president said, encouraging lawmakers to get back to work.
Obama's remarks capped a day that was at once dramatic and predictible. Given the failure of so many other efforts to forge a path toward deficit reduction—the Biden talks, the Obama-Boehner talks—the super committee's failure probably shouldn’t come as a shock. And yet there was hope that the super committee might agree on something, if not the whole $1.2 trillion at least some cuts that everyone could agree on. Everyone looked for signs of give: What about Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., being willing to give on revenue increases? What about Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who had a reputation for reasonableness when he was director of the Office of Management and Budget? What of Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., the lion in winter who would like to add a big deal to his legacy?
In the end, no one could overcome the insurmountable problem that Democrats wanted more revenue-raisers than Republicans were willing to consider—which is why the super committee was born in the first place. The leaders who picked the members were no more willing to come to an agreement than they had been over the summer.
On Friday, some last minute discussion of taxes spurred a bit of optimism as Sen. Kerry gathered with members of the committee. But it soon became apparent that any hope of a deal or even a partial deal was illusory.
Now what? Does the dreaded sequestration kick in, or will Congress try to remove the sword of Damocles that was supposed to spur the committee to action? Could we go back to the old-fashioned standing committee system—hey, there’s a novel idea—and let them work out cuts? None of the cuts are supposed to kick in until 2013 so there’s time to create another Rube Goldberg contraption between now and then. But the debt-ceiling hikes enshrined in the Budget Control Act depend on getting that $1.2 trillion cut, so at some point are we due for another debt-ceiling mess?
The markets may not wait to react until then. While interest rates on Treasuries didn't go up after the summer’s downgrade from Moody’s, we’re in a different period now. The eurozone is in a tumble, and the market is already off a couple hundred points. No matter what happens on the exchanges, the American people have been offered more proof that austerity is no easier to impose in Washington than it is in Athens or Rome. The Dow closed off almost 250 points.
Of course, some say good riddance. On Monday morning Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich cheered the committee’s demise. The former House speaker had deep disdain for a contraption that circumvented the traditional committee system. Liberals such as Paul Krugman found it to be aimed at unnecessary austerity at a time when Keynesian pump-priming is needed. And it’s hard to imagine a lot of tears being shed at Occupy Wall Street rallies.
In Congress, though, the scene was more bizarre. Most members had left town. C-SPAN rebroadcast some of the super committees hearings, as if for nostalgia's sake. One of the panel's co-chairs, Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, had left the capitol before the statement was released. At this point, who could blame him?
Billy House contributed