Scott Spiegel

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There’s Nothing Super About This Committee

November 16, 2011 By: Scott Spiegel Category: Economy

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Image by Scott Spiegel via Flickr

Last summer, during the debt ceiling standoff, Congressional Republicans and Democrats came to a dubious—no, wait: stupid—deal to set up a bipartisan “supercommittee” to negotiate $1.2 trillion in spending cuts over the next decade.

The committee comprised three Republicans and three Democrats from the House, and three each from the Senate.  The committee would make spending cut recommendations by November 23, and Congress would vote on them by December 24.  If the committee failed to agree to cuts that can pass in Congress, automatic cuts of $450 billion from defense spending, $450 billion from domestic programs, and $300 billion from reduced interest payments would kick in on January 1, 2013.

What could possibly go wrong?

For starters, there are six Democrats on the panel and only six Republicans.  Since spending bills originate in the House, which Republicans control, why is this a 50-50 proposition?  Would gloating Democrats have been so sporting if this process had unfolded in 2007 or 2009?

The Republicans on the committee aren’t nearly as conservative as the Democrats are liberal.  Only one Republican could be called a consistent, genuine fiscal conservative: newly elected Senator, Club for Growth President, and godsend Pat Toomey.  Republican committee chair Rep. Jeb Hensarling, Sen. Jon Kyl, and Reps. Rob Portman, Dave Camp, and Fred Upton, whatever their virtues, all voted to increase the debt ceiling in August, and thus cannot be trusted.

In contrast, three Democrats on the committee—Reps. James Clyburn, Chris Van Hollen, and Xavier Becerra—bucked the majority of House Democrats and voted not to extend the Bush-era tax cuts last December.

In other words, the GOP appointed moderate-right members, while Democrats appointed members of the Socialist Workers Party.

Then there’s the matter of negotiating strength.  Sen. Max Baucus, a Democratic committee member and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, infamously rammed ObamaCare through the Senate without a single GOP vote.  Whatever you think of his policies, the firmness of Baucus’s past negotiating stances has been solidly demonstrated.

In contrast, Republicans consistently fail to stand up for their side in negotiations with Democrats, always caving in when the accusation of being meanies gets to them.  Already Hensarling is making the rounds telling reporters that tax increases are “a reality” when you’re dealing with Democrats.

There’s also the fact that any agreed upon spending cuts are not binding, and can be weakened or eliminated by future Congresses—which means that any cuts that don’t take effect in the next ten minutes are basically meaningless.  Even the “automatic” cuts slated for 2013 can be “unautomatized” by Congress next year.  As Toomey notes, in the event of failure to reach a deal, “[I]t’s very likely that Congress would reconsider the configuration” of automatic cuts.

Also, the Defense Department says it cannot sustain $450 billion in cuts.  As for the $450 billion to be cut from domestic programs, Congress still has to wrangle over which agencies to target, which means that the supercommittee isn’t really deciding anything, just kicking the can down the road.

Also, other committees are trying to use the supercommittee to slip by Congress unpalatable bills on things like agricultural subsidies for farmers who don’t farm, by capitalizing on its behind-closed-doors nature and refusal to disclose its discussions to the public.

The secretive supercommittee, whose final product will be sent straight to Congress for a vote, with no opportunity for revision or amendment, finds itself just eight days away from the deadline with no resolution in sight.  (This, despite President Obama’s helpfully calling the committee every five minutes to nag them from his courtside seat in Hawaii last week.)

Even within their party, Democrats can’t agree on which job-killing tax increases and illusory spending cuts to propose.  For example, Democrats haven’t decided whether to try to claim that the $700 billion we might not be spending on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan may count as 58% of their spending cut target.

Recently Republicans on the committee agreed to a tax increase that would reform the overall tax code, lower the top marginal rate, and broaden the tax base to incorporate the 47% of the population that pays no federal income taxes (and sponges off the rest of us).  Naturally, Democrats resoundingly defeated that proposal.  At least Republicans were savvy enough to start with a negotiating point that involved cutting taxes for high income earners, so that the final compromise would likely be closer to no tax increases for this group.

Although it’s been said many times, many ways, it bears repeating: All of this chaos is entirely the fault of Congressional Democrats, who have refused to pass or even propose a budget for over two years, thus necessitating all of these recent, panicky, last-minute showdowns.  (Quick: Google “Democrats haven’t…” and see what autocomplete suggests for you.)

The most important lesson conservatives should learn from this farce is one that cannot be stated too often: Never negotiate with Democrats.

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