Why the supercommittee is about to fail

Nov 21, 2011

The congressional "supercommittee" stumbled its way toward failure Sunday, with final staff-level discussions focusing mostly on how the panel should publicly admit that lawmakers could not meet their mandate of shaving $1.2 trillion from the federal debt.

So what happened? Chat with Post reporter Paul Kane about the reasons behind why the committee couldn't get the job done, including the issues that couldn't be agreed on, who the committee members are pointing fingers at, the strategy behind the committee and more. Ask questions and submit your theories.

Related: Debt supercommittee members brace for failure

Good morning everyone, it's good to be back in the live chats online. Been way too long. As I type, there is a last little flurry of meetings happening in/around the Capitol with a few members of the supercommittee. Nothing is expected out of these meetings, however, and we expect an announcement after the markets close at 4 p.m. that the panel failed to meet its goal. Down goes Frazier, down goes Frazier. Another bipartisan effort at trimming long-term debt is likely to get KO'd. Off to the questions. --pk

Why did anyone expect the supercommittee to succeed? Each side seems to have put its most partisan members there.

I tend to disagree with this point. There are at least a half dozen folks on this panel that either have a history of working on big deals, or they sorta grew into that role in this process. Max Baucus, Rob Portman, Dave Camp, John Kerry, Chris Van Hollen -- that was a core group of folks that are serious about legislating. Or, in Kerry's case, have clearly grown into the role during these talks, despite this not being his area of expertise (that being foreign affairs). There was a core here that should have been able to get this done.

Reading this statement by McCain...it makes me realize these guys aren't serious about anything.


"The Congress is not bound by this (triggers)"  Sen. John McCain said last month. "It's something we passed. We can reverse it."


At this point...if we can just reverse things like that at any time, then seriously, there is no point in even doing things like this. Most of us are sick of these guys...they would be fired in ANY other field for their ineptitude.

Undoing the triggers is not as easy as McCain and others make it out to be. Ezra Klein eloquently made this point last week. This would require bipartisan cooperation and consultation -- have you seen much of that lately?

Basically, to undo the Pentagon cuts would lead to a downgrade by Moodys, etc, because they have factored in a full $1.2 trillion in savings. If you take away military cuts, then you're left with half a loaf -- boom, downgrade. The other option is to replace the military cuts with other cuts. Um, does anyone really think Obama and Democrats will let domestic programs and entitlements to get cut even deeper? Not gonna happen.

A year from now, we'll be back right where we are today.


The failure of the Super Committee shows that the both sides are too extreme. There's been a lot of talk on your opinion pages about a CENTRIST Bloomberg-Bayh ticket that can solve all of our problems with centrism, moderation, and good old-fashioned elbow grease and compromise. Isn't this latest failure of partisanship and extremism great news for Bloomberg-Bayh? This moderate, centrist voter certainly hopes so.

Why would you want Evan Bayh on this ticket? If Bayh really wanted to fight these fights, he could have stayed in the Senate, where he had a very safe seat. He gave that up, at a very young age.

What's also worth noting is that the idea of needing more centrists is a bit overblown. The great deals of the last 30 years rarely involved centrist leadership. Instead, what it involved were 2 really big personalities on opposite sides, coming together to fight and push and shove for several months of talks, then at the end they settled the matter via a compromise. Think Dole and Moynihan in '83 on Social Security. Clinton and Gingrich on welfare. Bill Bradley, Packwood and Jack Kemp on tax simplification in '86. More recently, Teddy Kennedy and John Boehner wrote the No Child Left Behind Law.

What's missing these days are the fierce partisans who, despite all the differences, are willing to compromise at the last moment.

So who do the American people end up blaming more...any guesses?

The American people, by and large, blame everyone. In the last Wash Post/ABC poll, 18% of Democrats approved of Congress; 13% of Republicans. And, last and least, independents gave Congress a 12% approval.

I assume this outcome will only further those trendlines.

I wonder what is so bad about the debt panel "failure." We all knew going into this that there would never be an agreement that would really reduce spending. As I understand it, at least if the panel fails, there will be real cuts and yes, defense will have to share in those cuts, but even that is far better than the prospect of a phony deal and more of the same. My only worry is that somehow Congress reneges on the automatic cuts. Tell me why I'm wrong.

You're not necessarily wrong. How's that for an answer?!?! The reality is those cuts will happen, unless somehow they can agree how to turn off the sequester.

The biggest concern is from an institutional perspective. This committee was given magical powers, by congressional standards. They produce something by Wednesday night, bam, it would go straight to the House and Senate floors by Christmas. No filibuster, no amendments. Bam, votes. No committee made up of congresmen has ever had that power. Nor is it likely that any committee will be granted that power again.

And these folks blew it. This was a huge opportunity, that's what was lost here. This Congress can only govern under chaos and crisis. A simple deadline isn't enough anymore. Now, it's unclear how the heck this fiscal quagmire is going to get resolved. And this group had an amazing chance to get something really big done.

How have think-tanks and lobbyists - such as the Cato Institute, Americans for Tax Reform and Grover Norquist - effected the supercommittee?

There's a real dispute here on the Grover effect. It's more subtle than Democrats make it out to be, I think. Yes, his "Pledge" is powerful, but it's not as if Grover was standing outside these meetings waving copies of the pledge at the Republicans. I don't think the Rs on the panel necessarily feared him.

They feared the wrath of angry Republican primary voters more than Grover.

Should we expect that the gridlock will remain in place until one side or the other gains a voting majority to enact it's agenda?

I think we should just say it this way: Bruce Springsteen begins a new world tour in May (greatest news ever!). It's unclear how deep into 2013 Bruce will be playing, but the chances of Bruce finishing the world tour before Congress approves a sweeping debt plan? Pretty good.

How do you think the failure of the supercommittee will influence the Presidential election? Do you think it will create more support for a potential centrist candidate like Bloomberg? D-boy

If the president was allowed to live on the Upper East Side, and only commute to DC once a month, I think Bloomberg would run. Otherwise, he wants nothing more than to be mayor!

Paul, I'm guessing you won't be sympathetic to the following point, but I'll put it out there anyway. Most reporting on the supercommittee--like most reporting on the deficit--reflects an acceptance of a basic fallacy. Whenever there is an impasse, there seems to be a desire to blame both sides equally, on the theory that if only Democrats would concede more, Republicans would reciprocate (all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding). Yes, Democrats have drawn lines in the sand, but as Greg Sargent and other commentators have documented, when you compare the specifics, there is no factual basis for blaming both parties equally. So my question is, why does the Post's coverage do so anyway, either explicitly or implicitly?

Yeah, you're right. I think this point is just absurd and ridiculous. This is a big thing among folks calling it "moral equivalence" (Fallows, Ornstein) and others calling it the "cult of balance" (Krugman).

It's just stupid. If you want someone to tell you that Republicans stink, read opinion pages. Read blogs. Also, the underlying sentiment on the left is that this is the real reason why things went wrong in 2010: That the mainstream media is to blame. Sorry, I think that's the sorta head-in-sand outlook that leads to longer term problems for a movement.

Greg is a fine writer. He's an opinion writer, in the opinion section of the web site. I encourage you to keep reading him. And I encourage you to keep reading the news coverage, which should always strive to present both sides of the story. If you really don't want to hear anything about the other side of the story, I really do encourage you to stop reading the news section.

So they're just going to give up and quit trying?

Technically, most of them gave up last week. There is a meeting happening now in John Kerry's Senate office. A few of the supers are in there. This is the last gasp. Few people expect anything out of it.

Since it appears that the supercommittee won't have a deal, what does this mean for federal workers? Are their pay and benefits still at risk? Thanks!

The federal workforce is a winner and loser in this. It's a short-term win, because one of the ways to enhance revenue that had been essentially agreed to was requiring federal workers to contribute more to their pension plan. So, for now, that won't happen. A short-term win. However, over the long term, the trigger means spending cuts to federal agencies, on top of the already agreed upon $900-plus billion from the Aug. 2 deal. This means fewer federal workers over the next decade. Long-term loss.

Might this have turned out differently if Obama had sat down for lunch with the members or maybe played a round of golf with the heads of the committee, the way Reagan did with Tip O'Neil?

Obama tried the golf thing, with Boehner, in June. It didn't work. Also, it's just worth noting: Obama is not a schmoozer. It' s not in his DNA. He just isn't that guy. So, he's never going to be that guy.

What are the immediate implications for the military?

The Pentagon is already looking at something like $500 billion in reduced spending over the next decade, based on Obama's budgets. If the sequester goes through, there's another roughly $500 billion that gets cut over the next 10 years. A lotta folks say that such a cut is unsustainable.

However, the Iraq war is ending next month, and the draw down from AfPak begins next summer. The planning for these cuts begins immediately, so folks like Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon are adamant in saying the sequester must be turned off immediately. We'll see if they're successful.

When I read a post about a Bayh/Bloomberg ticket as the "moderate" alternative, it's really galling. From my point of view, the Democrats put Medicare and Social Security on the table. They put government spending (which is at historic lows, not highs) on the table. They put the savings from wars that are ending and tax cuts that were not supposed to be permanent on the table. How exactly did the Republicans respond? With *more* tax cuts!


In your estimation, who went farther to compromise, the Democrats or the Republicans? It's a small thing, but I think every time I get someone to agree with me, the message fight changes slightly.

The insiders on the Hill say that, over the past year, Democrats have gone farther in their offers to curb long-term debt. Obama's offer to Boehner was stunning to many liberals. Sacred cows were put on the table, such as inflation index on Social Security and moving Medicare eligibility age.

Of course, the Dems on the supercommittee didn't really go any farther than Obama went. They essentially went with where he was back in July. And, according to insiders, it's not clear that there was ever any unanimity on the supercommittee among Democrats about their offers. Which made talks somewhat difficult.

Republicans have wandered into the revenue area, but the folks on the supercommittee probably didn't go as far as where Boehner was in the summer. Their main complaint was that they felt there wasn't coherence from Democrats, in terms of where they were willing to go.

I hope this helps.

I'm wondering if at this point the best policy to work for is two-fold: (1) don't let Congress act to undo any part of the Bush tax cuts (I say this as someone whose taxes would assuredly rise) and (2) don't let Congress undo the trigger sequestration (I say this as someone with a deeply disabled husband whose Soc. Sec. benefit doesn't come close to covering his daily care). So I'll get hit with lower benefits and higher taxes, but so be it--at this point, that's the most I can hope for--just to take advantage of Congress's paralysis and encourage them to do nothing and all sides take the hit. Republicans I'm sure don't want the Pentagon cuts; Democrats want to raise taxes on wealthy but not on us middleclass AND they don't want the domestic cuts.... It's not ideal but hey, we can make this happen! Just tell Congress to sit on their hands!

I'll say this, if the entirety of Bush tax cuts expired, and the sequestration remained in tact, that would go a looooooong way toward settling long-term fiscal problems. The question is whether such tax hikes and gov't spending cuts would shock the economy back into a recession -- at least that's what I learned about Keynes in Econ 101. If such moves (or non-moves) sent the economy back into recession, then you'd have more unemployment, more people on food stamps, lower tax receipts, more people on Medicaid -- and the very actions meant to shore up the nation's finances would be bad.

First reference of the Boss. Been too long Paul, glad to have you back.

I really want a show in Spain. Never been to Spain, I need an excuse to go. A Springsteen show there, awwww, that would be great.

If neighbors cannot discuss our debt problem without saying one side is all wrong and my side is all correct, then how can our leaders meet our needs half way?

Yes, this is the central question, isn't it? To some degree, voters have to come to grips with what they want, decisively. Too many voters want a big deal -- but also don't want to raise taxes. This is reflected in about 10 Republicans who signed on to the "go big" coaltion, but also signed letters telling the supercommittee to not raise taxes. And a few Democrats also endorsed "go big", but then attended events with Social Security/Medicare advocates saying 'don't touch our benefits."

That sort of bipolar-ness is what's at the heart of this fiscal mess.


I'm a midwestern small business owner who splits his ticket. Went for Reagan the Bushes, but also voted for Clinton and Obama. I'm disgusted with both parties. I have to compromise every day, whether it's about the price I pay my supplier for timber or what appetizer to split with my wife at Applebee's. Why can't the ideologues on BOTH SIDES understand they have to compromise too?

OK, folks, I've gotta go. Time to find out if there's actually any last-minute movement. I'm gonna leave with the thoughts of this midwestern small business owner. I hope you all have a great Thanksgiving weekend. I personally can't wait to see my family up in suburban Philly.

Best holiday of the year. Hope you all it enjoy it with you and yours. See you soon. -- pk

In This Chat
Haley Crum
Paul Kane
Paul Kane is a staff writer for The Washington Post.
Recent Chats
  • Next: