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Deficit Panel’s Failure Reflects Ambivalent Public Mood

It is easy to blame Congress for the failure of the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction (aka the superfluous-committee) to produce at least $1.2 trillion in debt reductions mandated by the Budget Control Act.

Yes, Congress should be castigated for kicking the can into the ditch this time. But, to paraphrase Cassius from Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” “The fault, dear Brutus, is not just in Congress, but in ourselves.” Congress is, after all, a representative body, and once again, it has represented the ambivalence of the American people about taking the necessary steps to bring down the deficit.

That recognition does not take Congress off the hook. Soaring deficits and debt are certainly something Congress can and should bring under control. It simply helps us to understand why Members have such a difficult time doing the job they were sent to Washington to do: manage our nation’s fiscal house.

As I observed in a previous column (“Mixed Records of Success for Joint Committees,” Sept. 6), the chances for success of the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction would depend on “a powerful combination of bipartisan leadership backing (including the president), favorable public opinion and more stock shocks. History is not on its side.”

Let’s retrospectively look at each of those factors, beginning with bipartisan leadership backing. Make no mistake about it, this was a leadership-appointed committee. The party leaders in both chambers knew exactly who they were appointing and what they could expect of their appointees: total loyalty.

Had the leaders wanted or been able to seriously compromise and get a major bill out of the committee, it would have been done. But leaders are tied to their respective caucuses, and those party organs were not pressing their leaders to compromise on important party principles: taxes for Republicans and entitlements for Democrats. Had the leaders broken the traces of their caucus-drivers and consented to bold and significant tax increases and entitlement benefit reductions, they would have soon found themselves turned out to pasture.

As for the president, he took himself out of the game from the start — beginning by distancing himself from the recommendations of his own Simpson-Bowles deficit commission. It was his position that any intervention would only have been resented by his own party and lambasted by the opposition as meddlesome. So, he asserted that the joint committee was solely a creation and responsibility of Congress, even though he signed into law its establishment and mandate. Members of Congress were not the only ones nervously eyeing the 2012 elections as the joint committee muddled behind closed doors.

As for public opinion, everyone is quick to cite polls showing a majority of Americans supporting the proposition that the joint committee should be willing to compromise on taxes and entitlements. Presumably, such sentiments should have given Members of both parties, and their leaders, sufficient cover to move off their ossified backsides. But a closer look at the polls reveals Members had a firmer grasp on what their constituents really felt.

First, people do not consider deficit reduction to be an overriding priority while the economy and jobs are still in perilous circumstances. Second, people oppose any increases in their own taxes or reductions in their future government benefits.

That ambivalence is accurately captured in the dual identity of Americans as “theoretical conservatives” when it comes to the size and scope of government and taxes and “operational liberals” when it comes to government largesse (“Keep government’s hands off my Medicare”).

We needn’t go deeply into the third factor I cited, the stock market. It has fluctuated wildly during the past few months, mostly over factors unrelated to the fate of the joint committee. Still, there is a lingering recognition that markets will be severely affected if Congress does not soon address the country’s fiscal unsustainability: Greece is the word.

I do not accept the conventional wisdom that any serious attempt at deficit reduction will be put off until after the 2012 elections, when Congress and the president will presumably have a clear mandate on dealing with the debt. We’ve been down that can-kicking road so many times that our stubbed toes are at risk of gangrene. Congress should seriously consider a massive, budget reconciliation process, beginning in January, that will direct the committees of jurisdiction to produce by mid-April $4 trillion in budget savings over the next 10 years.

That route, like the joint committee’s process, is filibuster-proof in the Senate but recognizes the value of drawing on the expertise of existing committees to rationally process priorities and make sound recommendations to their respective bodies. Who says elections have to be all about blaming others for our sad state?

Don Wolfensberger is a Congressional scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, a visiting scholar with the Bipartisan Policy Center and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.

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