Steve Chapman
For the next 12 months, Americans will be in suspense waiting to find out who will win the presidential election and thus determine the fate of the nation for years to come. Too bad that by then, it may not matter so much.

That's partly because presidents must work within narrow confines established before they arrived. It's also because this month, a decision will be made that will have large and lasting consequences, for good or ill.

I refer to the vote by the congressional supercommittee assigned to find a way to reduce the deficit over the next decade. Its success could be a boon to the economy, the next generation of taxpayers and the health of our democracy. But if you're a betting person, bet on failure.

The group, after all, is set up on the assumption that failure is a real possibility. It's charged with finding at least $1.2 trillion in deficit cuts, but since membership is split evenly between Republicans and Democrats, a majority vote for any package will be elusive if not impossible.

If they can't agree, a backup program will go into effect. Automatic cuts of nearly a trillion dollars would take place, coming mostly out of cuts in discretionary domestic spending and defense outlays.

The automatic cuts were imagined to be so excruciating that the supercommittee would have no choice but to agree on a plan. In reality, they are clearly the least painful option, making them hard for politicians to resist.

Doing nothing, which would trigger "sequestration," offers powerful attractions to both Republicans and Democrats. It gives Republicans their inviolable demand, because it doesn't raise taxes. It lets Democrats protect the entitlement programs (Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid) they prize above all else. It lets both pretend to have done something about our swelling federal debt.

But will this option actually reduce expenditures in the programs affected? "No, no, no, no," replied Veronique de Rugy, a researcher at George Mason University's Mercatus Center, when I asked her. "Spending increases quite dramatically."

Defense outlays would rise by 18 percent over 10 years. Nondefense discretionary spending (for everything from education to national parks to law enforcement) would grow by 12 percent.

Besides, the automatic cuts are not carved in marble. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta opposes those for defense. So does Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, who says, "Congress is not bound by this -- it's something we passed; we can reverse it."

Other GOP senators and House members have come out for repealing the triggers. They may find plenty of allies among Democrats who want to hold domestic programs harmless.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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