The Supercommittee: A History Lesson

The Supercommittee is now officially a failure. On balance, I think that is a good thing, in part because the whole approach of trying to solve our country’s deep-seated fiscal problems with a closed-door, back-room deal is fundamentally wrong. Senator Jeff Sessions, ranking Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, reminds us of the history that gave rise to the present crisis and points the path toward a more sensible, if inherently difficult, approach:

All of us had hoped that the supercommittee would succeed in producing the sound, long-term plan this country desperately needs. But in order to properly understand why they did not, we must recognize the strategic decision made by the president, and Senate Majority Leader Reid, at the beginning of the year.

The budget process began with the submission of the president’s budget plan. Analysis of that plan quickly revealed that the president’s $1.6 trillion tax increase proved totally inadequate to offset the enormous levels of new spending that would occur. Under this plan, over ten years, we would accumulate another $13 trillion in debt, never produce a single deficit less than $748 billion, produce a deficit in the tenth year of $1.2 trillion, and leave entitlement programs like Medicare in grave financial peril.

For this, the president was widely and correctly rebuked.

Next, the newly-elected House Republicans—dispatched by voters to restrain Washington’s big spenders—introduced and passed a budget plan as required by law. It was a detailed, honest, and concrete plan to put our nation on a sound footing.

The Senate Democrat majority then made a decision: Rather than introduce a plan of their own, they chose to ignore the law and craft no budget at all. Majority Leader Reid even said it would be ‘foolish’ to have a budget. After the president’s disastrous budget rollout, Democrat leaders knew their rhetoric would not hold up on paper—that the public would not accept the level of spending, taxing, and borrowing their fiscal vision requires. It was simply easier to avoid accountability.

From that point forward, the president and Senate Democrats did everything possible to avoid having to develop a concrete plan to address this nation’s most dire long-term challenges. The president ignored three consecutive Medicare funding warnings—even though this trigger, by law, requires him to submit a plan to resolve Medicare’s fiscal imbalance within 15 days of submitting his budget. They left the serious policy playing field to fight on the political one, even as America’s balance sheet tipped us closer in the direction of Greece. Should America go down that path, those with the fewest resources, the poorest among us, would be hurt the most; there is nothing compassionate about economic disaster.

A series of secret meetings ensued—meetings of the Gang of Six, talks with the vice president at the Blair House, talks with the president at the White House, and, most recently, the supercommittee. These secret meetings disengaged the congressional process and prevented the serious national and legislative debate we need from taking place. It also allowed Democrats—who still had no real budget plan—to continue avoiding accountability for the fiscal and economic consequences of their political agenda. Indeed, in the first two years of the president’s administration, non-defense discretionary spending surged 24 percent—and by the end of the first three years, gross debt will have increased almost $5 trillion.

Had the president made clear he wanted an agreement, a deal would have been achieved. It seems clear he wanted a campaign issue instead. Rather than confronting the great threat of our time—our $15 trillion debt—the commander-in-chief fled the battlefield. That’s not clever; it’s irresponsible.

Progress must, and will, be achieved. But the kind of deep, systemic, and far-reaching solutions that are ultimately needed won’t be achieved with an 11th hour deal or secret meeting. It will require the full and vigorous participation of the public, the Congress, and the president. It will require a sometimes messy, public, democratic process. And it will require senators and congressmen to cast many public votes and to be held accountable by the American people.

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