Government Spending

Slouching Toward the Inevitable Failure of the Super Committee

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Me am Bizaro Super Committee where cuts actually happen.

Did you hear the one about the bipartisan debt committee that failed to come up with a bipartisan proposal to reduce the debt? From today's Washington Post

If the congressional "supercommittee" cannot agree on a plan to tame the federal debt by next week's deadline, as now appears likely, here's what will happen: nothing.

The automatic spending cuts that were supposed to force the panel to deliver more palatable options would not take effect until January 2013. That leaves lawmakers a full year to devise alternatives.

What sort of alternatives? Well, how about just ignoring the automatic spending reductions, which occur through a mechanism known as a sequester, which don't even represent cuts from today's spending levels, entirely? 

Republicans don't like the trigger's defense cuts. And Democrats aren't too thrilled with cutting Medicare, especially if Republicans override any triggered cuts in defense spending. 

But that's exactly what a number of Republicans have proposed to do. Last month Sen. John McCain made this very clear, saying "As far as I'm concerned, I will fight any additional cuts in defense spending" that result from the trigger. Via TPM:

"If there's a failure on the part of the super committee, we will be amongst the first on the floor to nullify that provision," McCain said. "Congress is not bound by this — it's something we passed; we can reverse it."

Nor is McCain the only Republican who's made a vow like this. Sens. Graham and Kyl, as well as Rep. Buck MKeon, have said much the same thing. 

What then? If Republicans reverse the defense cuts, Democrats won't be happy, and may want to see the Meducare cuts tossed out too. As The Washington Post's Ezra Klein noted earlier this week, "Democrats aren't going to be enthusiastic about keeping the part meant to penalize them for the supercommittee's failure while helping Republicans move the bit that was meant to be their punishment." 

Each party, in other words, is mortified by the prospect of seeing its favorite type of spending hit with sequester reductions, which the Post describes as "unprecedented cuts to the Pentagon and other agency budgets." Just how dramatic would these cuts be? Once again, it's worth looking at the following chart prepared by Reason columnist and Mercatus Center senior research fellow Veronique de Rugy:

This is what the spending restraint mechanism that's got both parties terrified looks like. And that should tell you something about why these bipartisan committees always end in failure, and why the nation's legislators have set the country on such a perilous fiscal path.

In other news, the national debt hit $15 trillion this week