The Spectacle Blog

The Super Committee and Our Super Problem

By on 11.21.11 | 8:09AM

Did anyone actually expect anything out of the super committee? Its very existence was a product of Washington dysfunction coupled with the fact that the two parties are very far apart on how to deal with the federal government's long-term fiscal challenges. Few of its members on either side have much of a reputation for being consensus-builders. They mostly represented their parties' diametrically opposed views about the role of government.

If no grand Solomonic compromise could be come up with when Republicans and Democrats were negotiating the debt-ceiling statute that created the super committee, what hope did this panel ever have? The smart reaction to any 11th-hour compromise would be to question the math and count the silverware.

Our elected officials have displayed virtually no willingness to confront the unfunded liabilities of the country's major entitlement programs or annual budget deficits that are larger than the entire federal budget as recently as when Bill Clinton was president.

"It took 40 presidents and nearly two centuries, from George Washington to Ronald Reagan, for the US government to accumulate $1.5 trillion in indebtedness," observes Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby. "The 44th president - aided and abetted by Congress - enlarges the federal debt by that amount every 12 months." Barack Obama's immediate predecessor -- and some of those who would like to be his successor -- also pushed irresponsible, unsustainable fiscal policies.

Getting beyond the super committee, there is a major dilemma the right must confront that is obscured by all the media sturm and drang about Grover Norquist's taxpayer protection pledge. There is no reason to imagine the Democrats will accept any serious spending cuts without accompanying counterproductive tax increases designed only secondarily (at best) to raise revenue rather than legislate fairness. Recent history does not give many reasons for optimism that the spending cuts will be particularly serious even if accompanied by real tax increase. The failure of the current tax code to consistently raise enough revenue to fund our existing spending commitment regardless of the rates is a powerful argument for dealing with the matter on the spending side.

Yet there also isn't much evidence Republicans, much less conservatives, will ever have a firm enough grasp on Washington's purse strings to achieve meaningful spending reductions on a partisan basis. Sixty Republican senators? A Republican president and House? Striking a deal on revenues means weakening the Republican bargaining position with uncertain results on spending, especially if such a deal broadens the tax base with a VAT or similar contraption. Waiting for the Republicans to have the power to reform entitlements in an enduring way on their own may be waiting for something that will never happen.

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