The Environment

On the “Death” of the Supercommittee

November 21, 2011  • Dan Glickman

As of the writing of this blog, the Supercommittee – 12 members of the House and Senate, which was established several months ago by Congress and the White House to come to grips with the nation’s mounting and unsustainable debt – closed up shop without reaching any agreement whatsoever.

This special committee, extraordinarily inappropriately named, was created by Congress in a last-ditch effort to resolve the deficits of the past years.  And its creation was a recognition that the regular order, the normal congressional processes by which legislation is passed, was not working.  The Supercommittee was at best an unorthodox and last ditch effort to reach consensus on fiscal issues.  Unfortunately, the optimism of the summer has again turned to gridlock and deadlock, and the current paralysis which grips the Capitol continues to the present day.

In my judgment, there are many reasons causing this paralysis.  Failure of leadership at all levels of Government is apparent to almost anyone who examines our current political crisis.  Democrats and Republicans are unable to confront the ideological extremism occurring in the political base of each of their parties to enable them to compromise on tax and spending decisions.  Modern media and campaign spending make it difficult for members of Congress to do anything which involves political risk, as political extremes are likely to pounce quickly and aggressively on the actions of most congressman and senators who want to take responsible action which just might enrage the folks at home.  And frankly, there is not a lot of political courage left in our system.  Harry Truman once counseled his advisors that the art of political leadership is getting people to do what they know needs to be done but do not want to do; seems like Truman’s advice on courage and leadership are bygones of another era.
But probably the biggest obstacle to reaching agreement on the debt is the very strong and widening ideological differences between the parties, and the public at large..  The Republican Party has become much more conservative in recent years, and much less prone to any compromise on raising taxes  and cutting defense spending.  And many in  the Democratic Party have dug in more than ever on long term reductions in Medicare and Social Security, where most of the big spending decisions must be made.  The result is paralysis, and an American government incapable of governing for its most basic functions and needs, in large part because there is such a massive divide on so many of the issues.  But historically we have always had deep and significant divisions in America, whether on issues of war and peace, civil rights, or health care reform, and the mark of a great country like ours is the ability to reach consensus on these divisions.  We have always done so in the past.  But in today’s environment, reaching consensus on any of these issues is often viewed by partisans in the context of weakness, passivity, and even unilateral disarmament.
Perhaps the most reasonable outcome to all of this is a serious Presidential and Congressional election where the public can speak clearly and unequivocally on where they want their Government to take them.  Smaller or bigger Government.  More or fewer taxes.  Smaller or larger entitlements.  Ultimately, it is the public who have to send a less ambiguous direction for their country.  Right now they are at 50/50.  Part of the gridlock is caused by an American public which is equally divided and not sending clear signals to their elected officials.   Maybe the only real solution to all of this is for the public taking the 2012 elections very very seriously, and sending a more definable mandate to the politicians on the decisions they are entrusted to make…