Supercommittee Sham: The Deadline and Trigger Farce

Ignore the cupcakes and optimistic talk. Michelle Cottle on why the debt panel won't really make a deal.

Only a few days left before the congressional supercommittee crashes headfirst into its November 23 deadline for tackling our nation’s debt crisis.

Wednesday afternoon, “super” member John Kerry stressed to me his determination to get ‘er done. “We’re still here working and I’m not giving up,” he emailed. “The stakes are larger right now than at any moment I’ve seen in 26 years here. People are watching to see if this place can still function and frankly they don’t believe it can, but that’s what the next 24 hours will show.”

From the Republican side of the aisle, Rep. Tom Cole expressed optimism that the supers will perform a last-minute miracle. “I still have faith in the process and faith in the people making the decision.”

Alas, few folks share Kerry and Cole’s stubborn optimism, even within the halls of Congress.

“It’s looking like a slow-motion train wreck,” says Rep. Jim Cooper with a sigh, a blue-dog Dem from Tennessee who was not selected for the committee. “It’s not incompetence that worries me,” he explains, “it’s invertebrates”—that is, fellow lawmakers who are “genetically incapable” of putting the welfare of the nation above “their membership in the club.”

Such pessimism is hardly surprising. The 12 “supers,” 6 Ds and 6 Rs, were carefully chosen by their respective leaderships to ensure that meaningful compromise would be all but impossible, then charged with shaving $1.2 trillion from the deficit without making any tough choices that could upset their respective teams.

As Cooper observes, “You do not get selected for a committee like that if you show any weakness whatsoever or any ability to compromise.”

Who could have predicted this process would not go well?

As if the committee’s structural flaws and high-profile squabbling weren’t disheartening enough, this week there emerged media reports that the supers have been trying to build bipartisan bridges via snack foods and exercise.

Senator Kerry, as it happens, has been a leader in this regard. With an eye toward fostering intimacy, Kerry and Republican super Rob Portman have taken to going on morning bike rides together. Both hard-core cyclists, the two men occasionally bring along another colleague, such as Dem Mark Warner (a non-super but moderate member of the compromise-seeking Gang of 6). And away they all speed in their helmets and spandex, sweating their way toward financial solvency.

Meanwhile, back at the negotiating table, Kerry has been carting in cupcakes to buck up colleagues, The Washington Post tells us. Also spotted in the empty supercommittee room Monday: GoLean granola bars and Craisins.

Granola bars? Cupcakes? Bike rides? What kind of sorry stab at crunch-time bonding is all this? These guys need scotch. Lots of it. Also steaks, cigars, a poker table, and quite possibly a karaoke machine. Equally key, they need to be imprisoned together in a soundproof, windowless room in the bowels of the Capitol and not set free until they have something to show us.

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Extreme? Perhaps. But this is, more or less, how deals used to get done in this town (minus the karaoke machine). Instead, we’re being treated to yet another spectacle of bluster, grandstanding, and demagoguery likely to lead exactly nowhere.

Anticipating their colleagues’ failure, non-super lawmakers have begun behind-the-scenes talks about alternatives, says Cooper, including forcing a vote on past deficit-reduction proposals (such as the Bowles-Simpson or Dominici-Rivlin deals). Not that this would likely go anywhere either, he acknowledges glumly. “The supercommittee has procedural advantages we would never have.”

Superliberal Rep. Dennis Kucinich echoes Cooper’s pessimism. “The process was flawed from its inception,” he says, adding that no one should have expected the supers to reach any “grand bargain” with an election year speeding toward us. He predicts his colleagues will simply rewrite the rules or extend the deadline.

One possibility being discussed is that the supers will hammer out a deal on cuts, then punt the tax issues to yet another committee with an even later deadline. “They will attempt to try to kick the can down the road,” predicts longtime Democratic leadership aide Jim Manley, now the senior director at Quinn Gillespie political consultants.

As for the “trigger”—the broad-based spending cuts set to automatically kick in if the supercommitee fails—nobody seems to be taking that threat too much to heart. Both Kucinich and Cooper consider it something of a farce since the cuts aren’t set to go into effect until 2013. The threat is “a fake,” asserts Cooper, predicting that it would be repealed well before it had any impact.

That said, the existence of the trigger—known around Washington as “sequestration” because the $1.2 trillion will be sequestered from all but a few budget areas—does provide the supers with a variety of creative paths for failing to accomplish much without having to admit failure.

Notably, “partial sequestration” is where many people think this circus is ultimately heading. What this eye-glazing term means is that the supers would whittle away some portion of the $1.2 trillion on their plate—say, $400- or $500 billion—then announce that the remainder would be sequestered.

“They’ll come up with something so that it doesn’t look like they’ve been sitting in the back room typing ‘All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,’” predicts anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist. “Then they’ll sequester the rest of it and come back and say, ‘We’ll fix this.’ But I don’t think there’s any hurry to fix it,” says Norquist, pointing, like Cooper and Kucinich, to the 13-month gap before the cuts take effect. “Why would Republicans want to rewrite the rules of sequestration now when they could do it a year from now when they could have a Republican House, a Republican Senate, and perhaps a President Cain—or the equivalent?”

Even barring a total repeal of the trigger, no one expects it to stand untouched—especially in the area of defense cuts. Already, hawks on both sides of the aisle have pledged to protect the Pentagon. And once lawmakers begin picking apart the deal to protect their pet areas, the entire cheap tapestry starts to unravel.

Whatever the details, don’t look for the supers—and ultimately Congress—to offer anything beyond “a farcical proposal that really doesn’t pass the laugh test,” grumps Cooper. Putting off tough decisions for another day “is the easy way out,” he says. “And politicians are always good at finding the easy way out.”