“Failure is not an option.”
“Well, maybe it is.”
Such sums up the work of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction (JSC) formed last August with the task of finding $1.2-1.5 trillion in deficit savings during the next decade.
Some sort of cobbled-together semi-deal may emerge from talks Monday afternoon, but it will be far from $1.2 trillion in real savings. Worse, JSC’s abject failure leaves Congress with a 45 day period in which to address or postpone serious issues.
How did we get to this pass?
First, political imperatives for 2012 overwhelmed fiscal imperatives that might not cause damage to the American people or economy until 2013 or later. Short term pain for long term gain is not something that humans often endorse. With humans that crave approval as politicians do, it is rare indeed.
Second, President Obama decided to wash his hands of the entire matter. He has presented his budget, his spokesmen said, and has tried to negotiate an agreement with House Speaker John Boehner, only to have the Speaker walk out.
Third, market reaction to the Continuing Resolution for FY11 earlier this year, and especially the failure of any substantial negative market reaction to the debt ceiling debacle, persuaded many Members of Congress that as long as Europe was in turmoil, failure of the JSC would cause little panic among investors.
Fourth, leadership in both chambers and within both parties exercised strong control over their three members of the JSC. The 12 members of the JSC didn’t fail; the four caucuses wouldn’t let them succeed. The reasoning was simple. If voters want to throw all the bums out, that helps House Democrats (they have fewer bums than the GOP majority). And, in the Senate, throwing all the bums out would turn the Senate over to GOP control.
Meanwhile, “the bums” were busy at damage control. Scores of Members signed letters to the JSC. They held rallies on Capitol Hill. They voted for a Balanced Budget Amendment to the Constitution. They went home to their districts and states and proclaimed eternal damnation to deficits and cursed the opposition. It was great theater. And, it may have inoculated some of them against charges that they had been sent to Washington to change things and “didn’t get the job done.”
Various theories now fill the media. Some claim the sequester in January, 2013, will never happen. Since it will take a new law to undo the sequester provisions of the Budget Control Act, and it is unlikely that either party will have 60 or more votes in the Senate, that claim will soon founder on the rocks of legislative reality.
Some hope that the Budget Committees in the House and Senate can pass a budget, complete with Reconciliation Instructions that will force the individual committees of Congress to change programs in order to save the $1.2 trillion. Since the Senate hasn’t been able to pass a budget in two years, that line of reasoning seems fruitless.
Ideologues on both sides can now be pleased. Folks who think that America can keep its commitments in health and pensions will continue saying that until American can’t. Others who claim that any new taxes will ruin the economy will be validated until lack of revenues undermines the education and infrastructure of the nation and things go “boom.”
If a recession hits the United States early next year, a 50-50 chance it seems to us, it will be a recession that starts from 9% unemployment. Since this hasn’t happened in the United States since the Great Depression, we cannot know what the consequences will be.
But, as Scarlett O’Hara said, “Tomorrow I will find a way…after all, tomorrow is another day.”
And, perhaps the members of the 112th Congress will find many of their colleagues “gone with the wind.”