Last week’s failure of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction was, while entirely predictable, a failure both symbolic and practical in nature.
The hastily convened Hail Mary, a “supercommittee” of six Democrats and six Republicans created by the Budget Control Act of 2011, failed to agree on even the basic framework of a plan for reducing the federal government’s debt — a debt that has grown to more than $15 trillion. That pencils out to roughly $50,000 for every man, woman, and child in the country.
Or, as populist economist Dave Ramsey put it, if the federal government was a household earning $55,000 a year, it would be spending $96,500 annually. For those of us who live within our means, this clearly is an unsustainable model.
Yet the committee, which was co-chaired by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., began and ended its work as two six-person teams motivated solely by a desire to demonstrate which side was more intractable. Democrats will blame Republicans for their unwillingness to raise taxes; Republicans will blame Democrats for their unwillingness to consider meaningful cuts to major entitlement programs.
Both sides are accurate in their assessments, yet their infantile certitude is damaging to the country. A discussion that was and is important to the future of the nation was reduced to sound bites.
From a symbolic standpoint, the committee’s failure is representative of the dysfunctional nature of our federal government. Although the committee was formed by an act of Congress, signed into law by President Barack Obama, the president demonstrated a distinct lack of leadership throughout the process. And by failing to look beyond their own myopic concerns, the members of the committee served as a microcosm of Washington, D.C.’s inability to enact meaningful change and develop a road map for progress.
The lack of compromise might be emblematic of the political divide in this country, but it seems reasonable to expect our elected leaders to rise above such a divide and actually lead. It seems reasonable to expect some level of statesmanship rather than perpetual finger-pointing.
From a practical standpoint, the United States’ failure to address its growing debt continues to have financial consequences. Concern over the debt has stifled economic recovery, and that has an impact on Main Street. Just ask anybody who is trying to run a business or has watched their retirement savings dwindle.
The notion of the nation’s debt can be an ethereal concept, yet it does have real-life consequences for working people.
Following the failure of the supercommittee to even broach the idea of a compromise, there has been much talk about automatic across-the-board spending cuts in the federal budget, a provision that was included in the Budget Control Act. These cuts were put in place, in part, as a backstop to the committee’s work, as a motivator to make certain that something productive came out of the discussions.
Rarely has such a cynical ruse been foisted upon the American people. The cuts are not scheduled to take place until 2013 — after the next general election. And “automatic” cuts are a misnomer; the new Congress will not be bound by them, any more than they are bound by previous “debt ceilings.” The across-the-board cuts simply were a transparent attempt to pretend that the supercommittee was taking its job seriously.
We won’t be fooled. While the failure of the supercommittee was reflective of the current state of Congress, it also was reflective of our shortcomings as voters. The members of Congress are responsible for their inability to make government work for the people; we are responsible for hiring them.