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When the bipartisan supercommittee on the federal debt was formed four months ago, there was more than a little skepticism that the 12-member group could come up with $1.2 trillion in savings and avoid a severe round of automatic government budget cuts.
On Monday, with the deadline fast approaching and no plan in sight, it looked like the skeptics were on the verge of being proved right.
NPR talked to Stan Collender, an expert on the federal budget and congressional budget process at Qorvis Communications; Thomas Miller, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute; and Bill Frenzel, a former Republican congressman from Minnesota who now specializes in budget issues and tax policy at the Brookings Institution. Collender, Miller and Frenzel identified four developments that helped derail the supercommittee. They were:
1. Allowing the party leadership on both sides to select the supercommittee's members.
The members of the supercommittee were chosen not for their ability to compromise, which is what needed to happen to get an agreement, but instead for their likelihood to toe the party line, said Collender. None of the congressional members who had been part of the Simpson-Bowles deficit-reduction commission, which issued a report of recommendations last December, were part of the supercommittee, he noted.
"These were the people likely to compromise, but they weren't selected," Collender says. "What the leadership was looking for were hard-liners who would dig in their heels."
Frenzel agrees that those selected for the committee made compromise unlikely.
"The people who were chosen were all good people, but either they or their appointing officers are so in love with their own theology that they can't do what is needed," he said, adding that he would hold Republicans and Democrats "equally culpable" on this point.
2. Having an even number of members on the supercommittee.
The Supreme Court has nine justices, and many other bodies have odd numbers precisely to avoid deadlocks. While Collender acknowledges that having an odd number of Democrats and Republicans on the supercommittee wouldn't have been politically feasible, the even-numbered body "was most likely to stalemate unless you could get at least one Democrat or one Republican to join the other side."
Of course, the issue is how to balance spending cuts against possible tax increases. "When it came time for the Republicans to say 'We'll need to give a little on taxes' or it came time for the Democrats to say 'We need to concede a little bit on [cutting] entitlements,' they were unable to take a really positive step."
3. President Obama's role.
While the supercommittee was the body charged with making a decision, Obama could have played a more active role, says Miller.
"The president had been all over the map this summer, as have some members of Congress. This summer he was kind of dug in, in sort of a confidential negotiating mode, and now he's in campaign mode trying to get as far away from this as possible," Miller says.
The absence of the president from the negotiations meant that there was "no final arbiter, no one to get between the guys and give a little oomph where it was necessary," Collender says.
4. A divided public.
"The voters are pretty unclear and contradictory on what they want," Miller says. "It's no accident that we are where we are — it's not a strange occurrence which is keeping a clear consensus from forming. The consensus was never there."
Collender says it was naive to expect the panel to live up to an extraordinary rise above politics.
"You're asking members of Congress to impose a compromise that would impose real pain on their constituents," he says. "And in many cases their constituents have indicated they don't want pain. They think the budget can be balanced with some sort of magic elixir that would do it painlessly and easily and wouldn't affect them."
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