Congress is forming a committee. No, make that a supercommittee. Be still our hearts.
Not content to listen to the advice of the bipartisan “Gang of Six” on long-term budgetary matters, congressional leaders have named a new lineup, with twice as many members. U.S. Sen. Patty Murray of Washington is one of them.
Will this group turn a blind eye to the 2012 elections by setting aside partisan brinkmanship, or will it become known as The Dirty Dozen?
It’s hard to imagine that public confidence in Congress’ willingness to tackle tough budgetary issues could drop any lower. On the other hand, it’s easy to picture members exploring new depths by refusing to cooperate with one another.
Recent events tell us of this possibility.
Last month, the chief economist for Washington state, Arun Raha, told The Spokesman-Review editorial board that the mere threat of defaulting on debt obligations would damage the economy. Experts far and wide echoed the concern. Standard & Poor’s told Congress to deliver at least $4 trillion in debt reduction, with some of that coming from increased revenue, or it would downgrade the nation’s credit rating.
Instead, our national leaders dangled the economy off the ledge and got a wimpy debt down payment in return. Oh, and they formed a committee to find bigger solutions. Under the last-minute deal to raise the debt ceiling, Congress cut discretionary spending but ignored entitlements and tax increases. The supercommittee could entertain those ideas, but if it reaches an impasse or can’t persuade congressional colleagues to go along, then $2.1 trillion in automatic discretionary spending cuts would kick in.
But that’s barely half the $4 trillion in savings that President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner were working on before the “grand bargain” blew up.
These automatic cuts are ill-suited to address the nation’s long-term budget challenges, because they avoid so much health care spending, which devours an increasing portion of the federal budget.
In early comments, Murray and other panel members have said that everything is on the table, but if Medicare and Medicaid are swept off by Democrats and tax increases are swept off by Republicans, the supercommittee won’t have enough options left to make the substantive changes needed for a sustainable, long-term budget.
The president’s fiscal commission learned this. The Gang of Six learned this. There’s no need for the supercommittee to embark on a fruitless quest for a painless solution.
Murray and her colleagues need to tell the public the truth and deliver balanced recommendations to Congress. Latter-day partisan intransigence suggests they won’t, but the country would be far better off if they surprised us.