August's controversial debt deal punted the difficult work of reducing the debt by at least $1.2 Trillion to a special joint select committee, comprised of six Republicans and six Democrats. If this "Super Committee" proved unable to reach a workable agreement (which could emerge from the committee on a simple majority vote, and could be enacted by simple majorities in both Congressional chambers), dramatic "sequestration" cuts would be automatically triggered. These cuts would hit Medicare providers and, disproportionally, the military. After months of tense negotiations, the discussion has -- surprise! -- ground to a halt. As I reported last week, Democrats walked away from Sen. Pat Toomey's seemingly promising compromise in a demonstration of abject political posturing. The group's urgent Thanksgiving deadline is looming, and desperation is mounting. So dire is the situation that the Super Group is reportedly contemplating cobbling together a broad outline, then punting their non-specific recommendations back to regular Congressional committees to fill in the thorny details:
The 12-member deficit-reduction panel was nicknamed the supercommittee because it was supposed to be so much more powerful than those run-of-the-mill committees on Capitol Hill. Now that the supercommittee’s prospects for a major deal are fading fast, it’s looking at giving some of that power back. There’s increasing talk of punting some of the toughest issues to the congressional committees charged with doing this job in the first place.
That could mean giving the House Ways and Means and Senate Finance panels an order to come up with a specific amount of savings and a broad directive to rewrite the Tax Code. This potential abdication of power from a special committee that was granted sweeping authority to tackle the staggering deficit shows just how badly gridlocked Congress remains. To some, it sounds like the supercommittee is trying to figure out how to maximize political cover if it fails — a far cry from the mandate to achieve major deficit reductions where the rest of Congress has fallen short.
Read the whole, depressing thing. Sen. Marco Rubio -- who is not a member of the special committee -- isn't impressed with the spectacle:
“The purpose of the supercommittee was to avoid that from happening — and even they’re doing it,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). “There’s no way around it: We have some important decisions to make for the future of this country, and that’s what people sent us here to do. That’s what we get paid to do, that’s what people voted for us to do. That’s our job, we need to do our job.”
There is now talk of two-step processes and new enforcement mechanisms being erected to ensure that the traditional committees would get the job done by some negotiable future deadline. Let's think about this for a moment: If a special group of negotiators with carte blanche authority to construct an agreement behind closed doors isn't able to produce anything meaningful in 2011, is there any chance in hell that a divided Congress will manage to reach consensus and make really tough choices on entitlements and tax reform...in an election year? Don't count on it. And people wonder why Congress' approval rating has sagged to 14 percent. At this point, they're down to blood relatives and mistresses.
UPDATE - Ugh:
The congressional “supercommittee” is looking to count as budget savings as much as $700 billion that the nation no longer plans to spend on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan over the next decade, an accounting gimmick that has drawn fire from both Democrats and Republicans. In deference to that criticism, aides from both parties said the panel would not count war savings toward its primary debt-reduction goal of at least $1.2 trillion. Instead, they are considering using the savings to “pay for” other priorities, such as extending emergency unemployment benefits and a temporary payroll tax cut currently enjoyed by every American worker.
Budget analysts were appalled by the idea. Robert Bixby of the bipartisan Concord Coalition called war savings “the mother of all budget gimmicks.” But aides in both parties said an agreement to use war savings to offset the cost of urgent expenses could help build support for a broader accord on the debt, which is likely to require lawmakers to support politically painful spending cuts and tax increases.
It's the return of Moon-Yogurt accounting: