The 12-member -- six Democrats, six Republicans -- "supercommittee" is supposed to produce a plan to lower the federal deficit by $1.2 trillion over the next decade.
While one should never say never in Washington, it's not going to happen. The necessary political center is just not there. So what will happen if the panel fails in its mission? Nothing, at least in the short-term.
Each side will blame the other for the failure. The Democrats will say accurately that the Republicans flatly refuse to consider tax hikes, and the Republicans, with equal accuracy, will say the Democrats refused to entertain significant cuts to the major entitlement programs, Social Security and Medicare.
Periodically there would be reports that the supercommittee was close to an agreement but each time it fell apart and always for the same reasons. This past week Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., thought he had a deal: $776 billion in spending reduction, including major cuts in health-care programs, and $401 billion in new tax revenues.
But Democrats were skeptical that those new revenues, to be achieved through largely unspecified individual and corporate tax "reforms," would ever materialize. They had reason to be doubtful. The deficit enhancing Bush tax cuts were passed with the commitment they would expire after 10 years. When the time came, Congress reneged, and the Republicans refused to even consider letting the cut for high-income earners expire.
The supercommittee is the fifth attempt in the last 12 months to formulate an attack on the deficits, which now cumulatively total over $15 trillion. There was the report of the president's Bowles-Simpson commission, which would require more political courage than most White Houses and Congresses can muster. There were the talks between Vice President Joe Biden and House GOP leader Eric Cantor, which fell apart when Cantor, a hardliner on tax increases, walked out. The Senate Gang of Six went nowhere.
The most promising effort was in July when President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner seemed close to a "grand bargain" of $4 trillion, later scaled back to $2 trillion, but Boehner was unable to sell it to his own House members.
With no agreement, $1.2 trillion in across-the-board cuts are to go into effect automatically -- but not until 2013. In principle, the two parties could still reach agreement before then but that's unlikely because 2012 is an election year.
And those cuts are nowhere near as automatic as the lawmakers make them sound. One Congress cannot bind successor Congresses to a course of action. The new Congress could simply chuck the across-the-board cuts and start anew on its own deficit reduction plan.
It all depends on who the voters send to Washington in next November's congressional elections, and ultimately that's where and how the deficit problem will be resolved unless the voters, like their elected representatives of the last 12 year, decide they prefer the problem to any of its possible solutions.
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.scrippsnews.com)
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