11.22.11

Congress Balks at Across-the-Board Cuts Triggered by Supercommittee Failure

The supercommittee was a super flop, with Democrats and Republicans unable to even come up with a spending proposal. Now some lawmakers are trying to block the automatic budget cuts they agreed to.

After months of meetings, huddles, posturing, and partisanship, the end came with a four-paragraph statement.

The congressional supercommittee finally confirmed Monday afternoon what most Americans expected all along—that the bipartisan panel empowered to find at least $1.2 trillion in spending cuts could not come up with a proposal to vote on, let alone one that Congress could actually pass. Instead, some lawmakers are already trying to wiggle out of the threatened consequences.

Despite a last-minute scramble to get even a modest agreement on the table, Rep. Jeb Hensarling and Sen. Patty Murray, the committee's co-chairs, admitted defeat after the financial markets closed Monday, but also called on Congress to succeed where they had failed—which, coincidentally, is precisely where Congress has been failing all year.   

“We end this process united in our belief that the nation’s fiscal crisis must be addressed and that we cannot leave it for the next generation to solve,” they wrote.

By failing so spectacularly, the supercommittee became the latest manifestation of the dysfunction that has paralyzed Washington over the last 11 months and dragged Congress’s approval rating to all-time lows. The panel also guaranteed that the spending battles that have crippled the capital this year not only will continue but will become the defining issue of the 2012 elections.  

The first of those spending fights started before Murray and Hensarling even made their announcement, as members of both parties vowed that they will not go along with the across-the-board spending cuts slated to start in 2013, now that their committee has deadlocked on finding an alternative.  

The $1.2 trillion in automatic cuts would slash both defense and nondefense programs for the next 10 years by about 9 percent. Although a single-digit decrease hardly sounds like a catastrophe, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned last week that the military reductions would “devastate” the Pentagon and would result in the smallest ground force since 1940, the smallest number of ships since 1915, and the smallest Air Force in history.

Buck McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, announced Monday that he would introduce legislation as soon as possible to stop the defense cuts and make Congress get the money from somewhere else in the budget.

“I will not let these sequestration cuts stand,” McKeon said.

After the committee deadlocked, Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) called the scheduled across-the-board cuts “the worst way to cut spending,” while Bernie Sanders, the liberal independent senator from Vermont, said he’ll use the next year to get tax increases, instead of cuts to domestic programs like child nutrition, to get to the $1.2 trillion that Congress committed to. “There is time for Congress to do what the American people want,” he said.

In short, both sides are still vowing to get their way, despite having promised to go along with the automatic cuts if a deal couldn’t be reached so the pressure would force a compromise.

Knowing that the easiest way for Congress to undo a law is to just pass another one, President Obama—who stayed out of the negotiations—called a press conference Monday evening to issue a warning. “I will veto any effort to get rid of those automatic spending cuts,” Obama said. “There will be no easy off-ramp on this one.”

If Congress does nothing, the Bush tax cuts also will expire at the end of 2012—raising levies on everyone and presumably giving the Democrats leverage to force a deal.

Obama spoke from the White House Briefing Room with the unmistakable confidence of a politician who knows the public is on his side in this fight. But he wasn’t the only one.

Democrats on Capitol Hill said that no matter how ugly the process may have been, they believe they will come out ahead as a result of the impasse, or at least ahead of the GOP.

“People are going to blame the Republicans for this by a 10-point spread, we know that,” a senior Democratic aide on Capitol Hill said.

A Quinnipiac poll backed up Democrats’ internal research, showing voters blaming the supercommittee’s failure on Republicans in Congress more than they blame Obama or the Democrats, 44 to 38 percent. 

Despite those numbers, most Republicans think the politics will favor them when Americans are asked to choose between having their taxes increased and cutting government spending.

The supercommittee became the latest manifestation of the dysfunction that has paralyzed Washington.

GOP leaders were so comfortable with their position that they moved forward with their plan to make government spending a central campaign issue in the 2012 elections. Moments after the committee deadlocked, the National Republican Senatorial Committee sent out attacks on incumbent Democrats blaming the committee’s breakdown on them, along with Democrats’ “addiction to higher taxes and more wasteful Washington spending.”  

Grover Norquist, the founder of Americans for Tax Reform and the dominant conservative voice on the tax-cut issue, also sounded victorious Monday night. “My staff told me I’m trending on Twitter,” he told The Daily Beast. “It was me and the Kardashians or something.”

Norquist said that the spending fights on the supercommittee were the embodiment of each party’s position on taxes and spending, and that the American public would reward GOP leaders for refusing to hike revenues when spending is at an all-time high.

“The Republicans will hold the House and probably take the Senate,” Norquist predicted. “The only question now is about who will be president, and voters will have a clear choice to make.”

But even Norquist, who said that cutting trillions from the budget will be a good thing, admitted that the sequestration plan is a less than ideal vehicle for Congress to get it done.

“Is it the best way to cut $1.2 trillion? Is it the smartest? Is it the most elegant? Probably not.”