On Supercommittee Failure


It looks increasingly likely that the supercommittee is going to fail to recommend a deficit reduction package to Congress.

As it fails, we should remember what exactly it is that is failing.  What were the assumptions behind the supercommittee’s creation?

The assumptions of the supercommittee’s design:

  • public discussion is a distraction, and public attention reduces substance
  • fewer voices at the table leads to clarity
  • contrived deadlines created a shared sense of purpose and urgency
  • it’s acceptable for party leaders to force Congress to choose between the supercommittee-creating debt limit “deal” and defaulting on the nation’s debts, with no time to examine the “deal”, and no ability to change it

Let’s look at these assumptions in a little more detail.

Public Attention is Necessary for Legitimate Discussions

Sunlight has been railing against this assumption for most of the last year. The argument can perhaps be best summed up by pointing out that supporters of supercommittee secrecy are saying that it’s okay to rewrite the tax code, change social security and medicare, cut defense spending, and rewrite agriculture policy, all in one measure, without any public hearings (on those topics) and with no chance for the rest of Congress to amend or block it.  That’s not just misguided, it’s antidemocratic and actively invites disaster, just as the Budget Control Act did.

Our votes are meaningless if the most fundamental decisions are completely divorced from the representatives that are making them. The supercommittee’s secrecy should become legendary in its wrongheadedness. When Supercommittee members demand secrecy for their talks while anonymously leaking plans and attacks to the press, we don’t have to take their professed need for secrecy seriously anymore, and shouldn’t in the future, either.  The Supercommittee’s failure should become synonymous with ill-advised legislative secrecy.

The only possibility for enduring damage from the supercommittee’s secret meetings is that their distorted definition of “meeting” may be contagious. The supercommittee’s own rules required their meetings to be public, and the chairs apparently relied on a contrived definition of “meeting” to avoid open meetings. If all the members of a committee in an official room doing official business for 8 hours isn’t a meeting under the Rules of the House and the Senate, then we’ve got to fix that definition. Murray’s and Hensarling’s disrespect for norms about what constitutes a meeting should be derided, and made impossible to emulate.

Empowering a Small Secretive Group Does not Create Clarity

Just as has been the case with all the other negotiations over the last year, the supercommittee negotiation process has been marked by anonymous leaks, rumors, and an utter lack of public substance.  When Senators accuse each other of lying on the Sunday shows, we have to conclude that, despite having only a few hand-picked members in the room for the negotiations, clarity of purpose was not among the things that the process created.

The supercommittee’s design reflects the assumption that politics are for manipulating after the fact, and that real decisions should be the result of inter-party trading.  It turns out that in the absence of the public will, which is intended to motivate congressional action, we ended up with a listless morass.

The supercommittee’s failure will probably not move our politics forward at all. Each side’s partisan supporters will be told self-supporting stories of valor and purity by their respective representatives, and the complete lack of a public record will enable their manipulation. By assuming that our American political discourse is too hollow for real deliberations, the supercommittee members will ensure that their negotiations make no valuable contribution to the next year’s politics. The offers and counteroffers become the basis for competing self-aggrandizing vignettes, our politics becomes even harder to connect to our actual national situation.

Contrived Mechanisms are Contrived

The looming sequestration / trigger was conceived as the keystone of serious negotiations, where a shared stake in avoiding catastrophe brings out lawmakers higher purpose.  In reality, attempting to bind Congress to contrived consequences has become a national laugh line, as Members of Congress attest their willingness to undo the trigger in part or in whole.

If Congress is doing a bad job of understanding consequences, creating “automatic” consequences isn’t going to help. The trigger is the mechanism by which Congressional leadership and the President raised the stakes enough to get the supercommittee’s agenda to be taken seriously. The power the supercommittee was given, however, (immunity from amendment and obstruction) elides the fact that the House and Senate alone control their procedures, as Section 404 of the Budget Control Act redundantly asserts.  When the Constitution gives you the power to set your own affairs, even previous Acts of Congress are irrelevant.

The sequestration is real, and will take an Act of Congress to undo or change.  But the special powers given to the supercommittee over the chambers (in order to deal with the impending trigger) are only as real as the Chambers’ desire to continue accepting them.

Creating impending doom turns out to be a very poor way of  creating a shared sense of purpose.

Party Leaders Should Lead Parties

The entire supercommittee debacle was started when Obama, Boehner, and Reid apparently took seriously the idea of giving enormous power to just 12 people, and trying to intimidate and bind Congress to their decisions. Announced as an act of courage, the supercommittee ended up undermining our trust in Congress, even when lower numbers seemed impossible.

At its core, though, creating the supercommittee was an overreach from party leaders. Given a recalcitrant and divided Membership, party leaders created a proxy for Congress. They jammed all of our national disagreements under one tiny roof, and threw their weight behind the seriousness of that process.  Nevermind the lobbyists, the fundraisers, the secrecy, and the disagreements. The supercommittee scheme assumed that if we had a small enough room, with a looming enough deadline, and forced Congress to go along, we could create compromise.  It turns out, though, that the alchemical formula for bipartisanship, if there is one, isn’t comprised of power, secrecy, and contrived deadlines.

If Congress is to learn anything from this debacle, maybe it should be to treat leadership differently.  The supercommittee process was essentially an agreement among the party leadership — the negotiators from July’s debt ceiling debate.  When they foisted the Budget Control Act on Congress at the 11th hour, they gave Congress the ridiculous choice between a sane process and a national default.

Congress shouldn’t accept this from leadership ever again.  An 11th hour “deal” is inimical to self-governance, and leads to ridiculous schemes like the supercommittee process.

If party leaders decide to hammer a deal amongst each other, then they should do that, among each other.  They should write up a public memo of understanding, and share it with everyone.  Say what your “deal” is.  A balanced budget amendment vote as trade for unemployment extensions? Fine, write it up.  But the Budget Act deal wasn’t a compromise at all, it was an attempt to make a better Congress, created with no reflection or public consideration.  Every assumption that went into the supercommittee’s creation was anti-democratic and ill-conceived.

The Supercommittee was One Among Many Plans

If the party leaders need to make deals in order to face tough issues, so be it.  There are any other number of “you measure, I cut” compromises that could be created by party leaders, without giving up on how a democratic legislature is supposed to work. Boehner and Obama apparently bought the argument that public discussion was toxic, and that contrived doom would motivate progress.

What if they had started with other assumptions?

If the leaders had all decided that deficit reduction needed a contrived process, what other possibilities could they have chosen?  What if they had declared a deadline for a fall proposal from the Republicans, and vowed an up or down vote in both the House and Senate on their plan, on the condition that if Republicans fail, Democrats get their chance in the Spring? And that this process would continue until one side’s bill passed? If the agreement were built on the public word of the party leadership, then both parties would start vying for legitimacy, rather than positioning themselves for failure.

That might be a ridiculous idea.  But the point is that the supercommittee process was borne of a particular set of assumptions about how compromise should work, and was structured to reflect those assumptions.  Those assumptions have been discredited.

Secrecy plus power plus contrived deadlines equals embarrassing failure.

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May our leaders see the supercommittee as rock-bottom for their secrecy addiction, rather than finding a new way to double down.  And the next time they create a power-sharing scheme, they should remember the difference between their discretion as party leaders, and the expectations for self-governance inherent in a democracy.