How The Supercommittee’s Supervillains Failed

A convoluted scheme that would have bypassed Congress — and American democracy — to slash the budgets of popular national programs fizzled out Monday, the “Supercommittee” appointed in the wake of this summer’s debt ceiling fiasco announcing it could not reach agreement on a large package of cuts to the federal deficit.

The mood on Capitol Hill and in financial markets was despondent at the failure of the panel — which consisted of six leading congressional Democrats and six leading congressional Republicans — to hash out a deficit reduction package, but populists from across the ideological spectrum cheered what they saw as a futile attempt at top-down rule by a bankrupt political class.

“You do not balance the budget in a civilized democratic society on the backs of the most vulnerable,” said Senator Bernie Sanders, an Independent Democrat from Vermont, who in a radio interview added that this was a good moment for progressives; many on the activist left share his view.

The committee has been disparagingly termed the “Super Congress” or Supercommittee because of its titanic task — finding $1.2 trillion in cuts to federal outlays — and also its unique power: whatever changes it had proposed would have received an up-or-down vote in Congress, making minority obstruction (a factor in derailing George W. Bush’s 2005 Social Security privatization effort) impossible.

“A Super Committee working to cut Social Security and Medicare benefits was an absurd anachronism in the era of Occupy Wall Street — in which the 99% are calling for Wall Street banks and the rich to finally pay their fair share,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a group that pressures Democrats in Congress to stay true to their principles. “Good bye and good riddance.”

Unions, wounded by recent efforts to end collective bargaining for public state workers and disappointed at national Democrats’ inability to pass the Employee Free Choice Act, rejoiced at their second bit of (decent) news in recent weeks, the first having been a successful effort to repeal one of those anti-collective bargaining bills in Ohio.

“We think a bad deal would have been much worse than what occurred here,” said Peter Colavito, director of government relations at the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the fastest-growing union in the country. “Obviously, Democrats stood up and said, ‘We’re not going to make permanent a series of tax giveaways for millionaires as part of a deal that would cut basic healthcare programs for Americans.’ And that’s a good deal, a good judgment.”

Dems could well find their fortunes improved next fall by a sense among some of the progressive movement’s rank-and-file that their elected officials are not quite as cowardly and craven as they feared.

Then again, on the right, Tea Party Republicans called the Supercommittee’s collapse a vindication of their Washington-Is-Broken anti-government philosophy.

“Conventional wisdom inside the Beltway believed that a grand bargain could be reached if the members were removed from the standard political process,” said Adam Hasner, a Tea Party-backed U.S. Senate Candidate in Florida. “They were wrong. Never underestimate the ability of twelve members of Congress to get absolutely nothing accomplished, outside of raising taxes and growing the government.”

The negotiations were doomed because the Republicans on the panel never wavered from their steadfast refusal to contemplate new taxes, according to those close to the process, but Democrats were also uncharacteristically stubborn: they stood their ground and shied away from cuts to important entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security.

In a statement released to the press Monday afternoon, the Supercommittee’s members made official what was already public knowledge: that its almost entirely behind-closed-doors negotiations had stalled repeatedly, that last-minute efforts to salvage the talks had failed, and that the story was once again one of dysfunction in Washington.

“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,” read the statement.

Longtime observers of Congress were unfazed.

“It was destined to fail because it had no leverage to remove the major obstacle to an agreement: the GOP’s unwillingness to make taxes a substantial component of a solution to the next decade’s deficit problem,” Thomas Mann, a congressional scholar at the Brookings Institution, said of the Supercommittee.

“The failure is fortunate in one respect: our deficit problem was not worsened by their inaction and might actually be helped over the long run.”

Now the effort to prevent massive across-the-board cuts to funding for everything from army tanks to after-school programs from kicking in over a year from now — the “trigger” in the original deal to raise the debt limit meant to encourage action by the Supercommittee — is sure to ramp up.

“They don’t take effect for a year,” American Enterprise Institute congressional scholar Norm Ornstein said of the cuts. That leaves “a lot of maneuvering time over the next few months, with time for a public backlash.”

What is clear is that if deficit reduction is agreed to in the next 13 months, it will be via recourse to the more standard procedures of Congress, with publicized hearings and debates — if also the risk of the filibuster.

“There was clearly a problem in these closed door discussions where our members and the American public really didn’t know what was on the table and didn’t have a voice in the discussions,” said David Certner, legislative policy director for the AARP. “To the extent that a longer process out of the closed door environment will allow for a more open and transparent debate,” that’s a positive development and makes Congress less likely to trim entitlement programs.

The looming cuts to the Pentagon — they are scheduled to go into effect in January 2013 — remain a potent negotiating tool for Democrats, as military spending is the only kind Republicans would seem to hold dear these days, and the reductions in the trigger were meant to be unpalatable to both sides.

And the Supercommittee’s fall from grace alters the calculus and will at least temporarily jumble the dynamics on Capitol Hill: Congress will have to muster the political will to increase public spending in contrast to what has become its members’ norm of occasionally coalescing around grand bids to slash it.

Follow Political Correspondent Matt Taylor on Twitter @matthewt_ny

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