Novembers during off-election years in Washington, DC are typically pretty serene. The autumn colors stream up and down Georgetown by the Potomac, while lawmakers gingerly ease into the holidays, knowing full well the next year will have them in complete campaign mode. Not so for 2011.
In their infinite wisdom following a contentious budget showdown just a few months prior, Congress and the White House silently swore they didn’t want to face that political debacle again. So 523 elected “responsible” lawmakers surrendered their roles as committee chairs, appropriations cardinals and oversight hawks to an intrepid 12 colleagues to begin the work they so eagerly avoided. That shifting sound you hear is our Founding Fathers turning over in their graves.
The die is cast. And for reasons I will explain, there is ample evidence that leads to but one conclusion. For the good of the Congress, the President, and the nation at large, this band of 12 cannot fail.
To be clear: It’s entirely possible the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction can fail to meet its mandated purpose of recommending reductions from $1.2 trillion to $1.5 trillion from the federal budget by Thanksgiving. That’s a tall order. But they must not fail if we expect our governing institutions to retain what little credibility that remains among them.
The first casualty of an empty Super Committee is our nation’s economic health. Set aside for the moment the sheer need for austerity. If the panel were to miss its mark, economic chaos could ensue. Moody’s Investor Service has already lowered our nation’s stellar credit rating. And just last week, the credit house said that, while no downgrade is automatic, the Super Committee would serve it and Congress well by tackling big budget busters such as entitlement reform. Put another way, Congress should get out of its own way.
Not long ago, Democrats led by the President blamed consumer demand as the key inhibitor to economic growth in 2011. Then Republicans piled on and said it was looming uncertainty that paralyzed investors and businesses alike, freezing precious capital. Even Obama later subscribed to that reasoning. So why is it now, when both parties clearly have their fingers on the crux of the matter, they are singularly responsible for that very uncertainty and yet refuse to execute the steps to end it?
Another reason why failure would hurt the entire process is the alternative isn’t that calamitous. If the Super Committee is incapable of moving its plan through both houses of Congress, then the fall-back plan which triggers automatically – a modest $1.2 trillion cut – by all accounts pales in comparison. Let’s be serious, every interest group in Washington is running around both privately and publicly declaring the so-called back-stop is far better than anything the deficit panel could produce.
When lawmakers designed the sequestered amount, they didn’t envision a $1.2 trillion cut as wimpy. (That alone should tell you something about congressional intentions – they fail to grasp the sheer weight of the federal deficit and debt.) The idea behind the ‘alternative’ was to make it so unappealing that the 12 would be forced to reach tough decisions. Now, they can throw up their hands in feigned frustration and let some orphaned amount kick in with little repercussion.
A third reason is political. What message does it send to the electorate that not only could Congress not responsibly address its duties, but even a sub-group with specific tasks failed miserably? What do such actions say for future “blue ribbon commissions”? Our worst fears would be confirmed. Even when lawmakers remove the cacophony of multiple voices and agendas, and drill down to allegedly bipartisan officials with one joint goal in mind, failure seems to be the only product.
To compound matters, several Beltway publications last week ran front page headlines that read, “President Stays Away from Deficit Panel.” The stories went on to say the White House had not made a single call to Super Committee members, choosing instead to get updates from Democratic leaders. Are you kidding me? Perhaps the single-most important congressional action of 2011 and 2012 – certainly according to Wall Street – and the president is sitting on the sidelines? Who made that call? You might as well inaugurate President Romney in January if this deal implodes. I don’t see any upside for Obama if the panel fails, not to mention for his party that’s flailing in search of a sound economic agenda.
Much hangs in the balance for this Super 12. And while I sense the American people know this is serious business with serious consequences, I’m not so sure the same sense of urgency is shared by our political leaders. Markets don’t lie, and they definitely don’t wear political stripes. Rather, they simply punish or reward. This country is due some good news for a change from Wall Street. Congress and the President can help usher in that positive outcome just in time for Christmas.