Debt Debate's Dead End

Washington is enthralled by the idea of a bipartisan supercommittee on the debt. But as Michael Tomasky notes, it may simply reproduce the budget conflicts of the past month.

08.03.11 10:19 PM ET

The big guessing game in Washington is who will serve on the 12-member bicameral "supercommittee" to work out the next round of spending cuts outlined in the debt deal reached earlier this week. It’s interesting to us insiders. And it may matter around the edges. But let’s be serious. The supercommittee is about as likely to come to an agreement as Charlie Sheen is to become a spokesman for Focus on the Family. And not only that—the chances that there will be continuing fights over the budget for fiscal year 2012, which starts Oct. 1, are still strong.

The committee is charged with identifying $1.2 trillion in new cuts and agreeing to them by Christmas (they would kick in starting in 2013 and extend through 2021). In a perfect Catch-22, the Republicans on the committee will be pushing for cuts in the one area Democrats are loath to accept (entitlements), while the Democrats’ main job is to win some give in the one area where Republicans won’t budge (revenues). At this point I’m supposed to write a sentence that starts, “Nevertheless, it is possible that both sides can …” I’d like to think that, and who knows. But it’s awfully hard to see how.

Let’s start with Mitch McConnell’s three Senate appointees. Jon Kyl of Arizona, his top deputy, seems likely. Rob Portman, the freshman senator from Ohio, who was George W. Bush’s budget director for a spell, might well figure in there. He’s conversant in the issues.

As for that third slot, the appointment of a member of the late “Gang of Six” would be a sign that maybe McConnell was open to revenues, since those three men—Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, and Mike Crapo of Idaho—did indeed put revenues on the table. But there’s every reason to believe, of course, that that is precisely why none of those three will be selected. Coburn, in addition to fighting recently with Grover Norquist, is retiring after his current term, which makes him too much of a wild card; someone who’s not under the pressure of facing his voters again can’t be controlled. And Chambliss appears not to be in a compromising mood lately: Undoubtedly feeling a little Tea Party heat in Georgia, he voted against the debt deal.

One person I’ve heard mentioned is Mike Johanns of Nebraska. He’s in his first term, from a safely red state, and is not retiring (or up for reelection in 2012, another condition to be avoided, since people worrying about reelection are capable of doing unpredictable things). And he’s a McConnell loyalist. If it’s not Johanns, it’ll surely be someone who fits that general profile.

On the Democratic Senate side, Harry Reid might have a tough sell. Dick Durbin of Illinois seems an obvious choice, since he sat on the Bowles-Simpson commission. Both Durbin and Chuck Schumer probably wouldn’t do it, because as the top two lieutenants, one should play the inside game and the other one the outside game. But any Democrat on this committee has a thankless task: to push a more or less hopeless case for taxes while trying to hold the line on entitlements even as the Obama administration—if the debt negotiations are any indication—might be negotiating something on entitlements without telling you. It’s a recipe for getting the Democratic base infuriated at you. And Reid probably won’t name any out-and-out liberals because he’d open himself to the GOP accusation that he wasn’t being “serious.” So look for moderates from swing or red states who aren’t up for reelection—perhaps Max Baucus of Montana, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, or Tim Johnson of South Dakota.

On the House side, all we know now is that Paul Ryan will be a Republican appointee. But the profiles of the types of people who’ll probably be named are what’s key here. The Republicans will name antitax hardliners whose only pressure will be from the right, while Democrats will name people who’ll face pressure from both sides—from their home-state voters to be accommodating, and from liberal interest groups not to be. The interest groups tend to prevail in insider arguments like this one, so that’s a recipe for no deal, with a slight outside chance of one Democrat jumping over to the GOP and giving a 7–5 vote to the Republicans.

When we look beyond the committee, the budget news gets worse. The deal Obama just signed supposedly sets the spending rates for the various agencies of the government, meaning there doesn’t have to be a negotiation on funding levels this September, in advance of the new fiscal year. But the deal actually only sets the caps—the highest dollar amount that can be appropriated to the departments of Interior, Energy, Justice, and so forth. The appropriations committees can vote for sums below the caps. So let’s say the Senate, controlled by Democrats, funds these agencies up to the caps. And let’s say the House doesn’t. After all, the House is already on record supporting the Ryan budget, which, as budget expert Stan Collender notes, sets dollar figures at significantly lower levels than the debt deal did. Result? “Certainly, we should expect that the Tea Party people are going to want the Ryan number,” Collender says. “You can just hear them saying, ‘Well, if the supercommittee isn’t going to be serious about cutting spending, then we are.’” So this means, potentially, a fight on a second front. While the supercommittee is making no progress, the larger Congress could be debating spending levels—and yes, may still shut the government down.

Feel better? You weren’t supposed to.