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Deficit Super Committee Is Not a Superhero

Maybe it’s because its formal name — the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction — seems so milquetoast and bureaucratic in comparison. But the far more commonly used super committee certainly gives the impression that the 12 House and Senate Members chosen for this assignment will be able to do their work faster than a fiscal locomotive, change the course of mighty budget politics and bend the health care cost curve in their bare hands.

And that was before the committee met for the first time. As the super committee was just getting organized last week, many of the participants and observers in the federal budget debate were already asking it to take on new powers and responsibilities that have continually proved to be far beyond those of ordinary men and women.

Indeed, given what’s being asked of it, you can almost imagine the members of the super committee attending hearings in red, white and blue Lycra costumes complete with a big “SC” emblem emblazoned on their capes.

Even though the assignment given to the committee of reducing the deficit by $1.2 trillion to $1.5 trillion by this Thanksgiving was already a deed many thought only a superhero could do, some are now demanding that it do even more.

For example, the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, which has become monotonic and one-dimensionally predictable on the topic, last week urged the super committee to “go big” by going way beyond what the act requires and recommending a $3 trillion deficit reduction package, about twice what the law requires.

Rather than “just” recommending revenue increases that would reduce the deficit, others are saying the committee should include comprehensive tax reform in its recommendations, even though that’s a process that typically takes years, rather than months, to complete. And tax reform typically is successful only when months have been devoted to preparing the public for the changes in deductions, credits and rates that are on the way.

The White House wants the committee to include offsets for its new jobs/economic stimulus package in the legislation it’s supposed to report by Nov. 23.

Still others are demanding that the committee prove just how much of a superhero it really is by agreeing to do its work with the budget equivalent of being blindfolded with one or both hands tied behind its back.

Last week, for example, one of the committee members — Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) — threatened to resign if it considers reductions in military spending. Kyl’s threat to take his budget ball and go home followed statements by Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta about how not only should Pentagon spending not be cut any further, but across-the-board cuts that will be triggered if the super committee fails to come up with a plan will devastate the military.

And, of course, others are insisting they will oppose anything the super committee comes up with if it recommends revenue increases of any kind.

Some of the additional things being asked of the super committee — such as the bigger deficit reduction package and the jobs program offsets — are understandable, given the expedited process the Budget Control Act requires to be used to consider whatever it recommends.

Congress and others discovered years ago that, because of time limits on debates and simple majority requirements, a similar expedited budget procedure — reconciliation — is a great way to avoid many of the pitfalls of the standard legislative process. In some ways, the process the super committee will be using is even more powerful, a sort of reconciliation on steroids.

But requesting or suggesting that the super committee do even more when just completing its original mission would go down in history as a close-to-unprecedented achievement puts all those demanded add-ons in perspective. Virtually all commissions, task forces and committees charged with reducing the deficit either failed completely or had their recommendations revised so that they seldom had the projected effect.

And that was before U.S. politics became so toxic that bipartisan agreements on even noncontroversial topics were a rarity. If you add today’s all-but-broken policymaking process, the magnitude of just accomplishing the original amount of deficit reductions becomes obvious and a very worthy goal by itself.

That’s why the idea that anyone is asking the super committee to do even more than it was originally charged with doing — with fewer powers and abilities and when its original mission is already close to impossible — is roughly the equivalent of asking Superman to save the world while surrounded by kryptonite.

Getting the required seven of the committee’s 12 members to support any proposal to reduce the deficit by $1.2 trillion will be tough enough if everything is on the table, especially because it would come on top of the spending cuts adopted when the president signed the debt ceiling increase/deficit reduction plan just more than a month ago.

But then asking the committee to do even more while allowing it to look only at a smaller part of the budget is the equivalent of asking Harry Potter to succeed without his wand while standing next to He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named and surrounded by Death Eaters.

Stan Collender is a partner at Qorvis Communications and founder of the blog Capital Gains and Games. He is also the author of “The Guide to the Federal Budget.”

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