The last great hope of deficit reduction has ended in failure. The two co-chairs of the so-called "super committee" admitted on Monday that the 12-member panel, evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, could not reach an agreement on how to reduce a ballooning deficit by even a relatively small amount over the next 10 years. Committee members and others spread out over the talk-show universe rushed to blame each other, the president, Grover Norquist, and perhaps even the Greeks. Not today's Greeks, who have even worse debt issues than we do, but the ancient Greeks who first came up with the idea of democracy.
Permit me to offer a qualified cheer for failure.
First off, this was hardly the last gasp for deficit reduction. At best, it would have started a process that would have worked through four more Congresses and traversed nine more budgets. Even if this super committee had managed to reach a deal, it would have cut just $1.2 trillion from a projected decade-long $9 trillion in deficits, and then only for one budget. One Congress cannot bind the next on budgets, and each year Congress would have to enact the cuts in the deal to keep the deal going.
Instead of throwing our hands up in surrender, we should insist that the full Congress do its job and plan a responsible budget.
Would that have been good for deficit reduction? Perhaps it would be better, but only incrementally so. Even if future Congresses were inclined to keep the deal, the effect would most likely have been to let those politicians off the hook for doing something about the rest of the deficits. Each year, Congress could pose as fiscally responsible for only having an average deficit of $800 billion rather than $900 billion — and by the end of the deal, the U.S. national debt would have grown from today's $15 trillion to $23 trillion. Instead of sprinting headlong into fiscal disaster, we would only have slowed to a fast jog.
And the idea that future Congresses would have followed suit is questionable at best. Politicians on Capitol Hill don't want to explain real cuts in programs that people support, as the structure of the committee's mission would have required. The "sequestration" cuts, which are now automatically triggered beginning in 2013, will make those cuts anyway — but note that they don't take effect until after the next election. The super committee proposals on the table based their spending cuts on the supposed savings from not fighting in Afghanistan, magically treating those as "new" cuts. By the time we got any actual deficit reduction this year, the spending cuts would have almost all been imaginary — and far below anything that would meaningfully reduce the $1.3 trillion deficit projected for this fiscal year.
In essence, the super committee structure existed solely to remove responsibility for budgeting decisions from Congress, in an effort to solve only one-tenth of a problem. Tax hikes? Blame the super committee, not Congress. Cuts to domestic programs and defense? Blame the Dirty Dozen, who somehow forced 523 other members of Congress to bend to their will.
So why didn't this exercise in accountability avoidance work, since everyone had a stake in hiding from these choices? The members of the committee brought their political divisions with them, just as they do on the floor of Congress. In an evenly-divided panel without any blueprint for compromise, that's a fatal flaw. Instead of working through the normal process of having each chamber of Congress develop its own budget plan and using them to form a compromise in a conference committee — a process that has worked in this country for a very long time — the super committee turned the process on its head and created a conference committee with no plans to compare and combine. It was a forum that allowed for a lot of wasted time on unserious proposals that might not have passed in either chamber, so it's no surprise that the effort failed entirely.
We have no real reason to mourn the super committee flop. Congress is still in session for the next 14 months before the sequestration cuts take effect. Instead of throwing our hands up in surrender, we should insist that the full Congress do its job and plan a responsible budget. There is also a benefit to this failure; it will be a long time before any Congress can propose another "super committee" to avoid accountability for one of Congress' basic responsibilities. That will be a better for the long-term political health of the nation than the illusory deficit reduction attempted by this low-wattage star chamber for the last three months.