What’s in a Name? Plenty of Super-Bad Memories on Both Sides (Video)

Posted October 8, 2013 at 5:28pm

Legislation is enacted empowering an equal number of Republicans and Democrats, senators and House members to set to work on a hurry-up timetable in search of a way out of a thick budgetary morass that has brought the country near the brink of default.

They are called a supercommittee, right?

That was absolutely true two years ago, when the nickname stuck hard and fast to the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction even before its proposed creation was unveiled.

But that is absolutely not going to be the case this time, if the people who cooked up the idea for a Bicameral Working Group on Deficit Reduction and Economic Growth have anything to say about it.

Top Republican leadership aides went into spin-control hyperdrive against the use of the s-word Tuesday, within minutes of the announcement that establishing that panel would be their boss’s next big idea for easing the budget crisis. With the focus on undermining the health insurance law having produced no traction, the House GOP is now eager to engineer some sort of bipartisan deficit reduction agreement in return for reopening the government and raising the debt ceiling. This came even as President Barack Obama staged a nationally televised news conference to declare, once again, that he won’t negotiate on anything until the partial government shutdown ends and the threat of default is erased.

The GOP spinmeisters didn’t offer an alternative shorthand to the five-syllable sobriquet. There’s little chance the unpronounceable acronym BWGODRAEG will catch on. Dubbing it the Committee That Must Not Be Named would imply that the members are trying to hide their genuine desires. And calling it “the special committee” would doom it to oblivion in a culture where children are reared to believe that everyone is special.

But the reason for the full frontal assault on the nomenclature was clear: The House GOP wants no reminders of an effort that gave cartoonists and late-night comics limitless material while leaving the people and their representatives with nothing but an across-the-board headache.

The 2011 effort is remembered as one of the most super failures in the annals of the deeply flawed modern Congress — an opportunity squandered equally by both sides even after the supercommittee members were cloaked with extraordinary powers designed to guarantee triumph where so many merely mortal legislators had feared to tread. Some of the Hill’s most seasoned power players are still laboring to restore their reputations as builders of bridges between party orthodoxy and leadership realpolitik — none moreso than the co-chairmen, Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington and Republican Rep. Jeb Hensarling of Texas.

The supercommittee debunkers didn’t offer that political rationale because they didn’t have to. Instead, they argued forcefully that there are such fundamental differences between the 2011 panel and the 2013 version that the word “supercommittee” shouldn’t be used now. The facts appear to put that argument on solid ground — albeit in ways that make the new panel difficult to justify as anything more than a sinecure for show.

The dozen members of two years ago had some genuinely superior powers. They had unfettered permission to insert themselves into any legislative area they chose in search of a finite goal: $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction over a decade. They were told they had to succeed or give up within 15 weeks, the congressional version of lightning speed. They were guaranteed that whatever a majority of them could agree on could leap all procedural obstacles and be put out to straightforward up-or-down, majority rule votes in the House and Senate within a month. And those procedural teeth were paired with a super consequence for gridlock, what even the most mildly wonkish Americans now know as the blunt, across-the-board punishment of sequestration.

The 20 members who might be assembled this time would be totally toothless by comparison. They could talk about discretionary spending, entitlements and the national debt — but not taxes. They would have no savings target and no deadline for finding one. None of the legislative solutions they might cook up would be guaranteed a clean vote on either side of the Capitol. And the only negative consequence for a lack of consensus would be that the lawmakers would have to keep meeting every single day until they get a deal or declare themselves quitters.

In other words, this group would have less sway than the conference committee on a fiscal 2014 budget resolution that could have been created at any time since March. Obama made this point Tuesday in discounting the worth of “some new supercommittee or what have you” in response to a question from my Roll Call colleague Steven T. Dennis.

“You can dress it up any way you want,” the president added, but denying such a panel the authority to discuss taxes suggests partisan gamesmanship that would likely doom the deliberations to deadlock.

After ending the shutdown and raising the borrowing limit, Obama said, “They can attach some process to that that gives them some certainty that, in fact, the things they’re concerned about will be topics of negotiation — if my word’s not good enough.”

If his word is super, he had best be concerned.