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The 'Super Congress' Is a Scam Designed to Force Cuts To Popular Programs And Keep Taxes On The Rich Low

Ignore all the process stories about the vaunted Gang of 12 -- here's how the endgame plays out.
 
 
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In the months ahead, we're going to be treated to an endless parade of process stories about the Gang of 12 “super congress” that emerged from the debt ceiling deal. Each time a staffer leaks some bit of trivia about the internal machinations of this opaque committee, the Beltway media will write a flurry of stories about it, lawmakers will signal whether they might support this provision or that one and the pundits will sift through the tea leaves trying to predict whether this time the kind of “grand bargain” the Washington Post editorial board lusts after will finally come to pass.

It will all be a piece of Kabuki theater. The way this deal ends is fairly easy to predict – it's a set-up that will result in fairly deep cuts to domestic spending, won't raise taxes on the wealthy and will leave “defense” spending largely untouched – a process that will force cuts to important public services.

In the real world, here's the end result of that ludicrous battle over the debt ceiling: Tens of thousands of vulnerable people will lose health coverage, funding for Head Start will be cut, thousands of low-income students will be denied an education, and many more public sector workers will be added to the unemployment rolls. Neither the environment nor our decrepit 19th-century infrastructure will get their needed funds.

Many of the budget changes on the way will be highly unpopular, but no member of Congress will have to cast a vote on them. The social safety net won't be protected, but lawmakers will be – none will face their constituents' ire.

It's a Set-Up

Here's how the deal was supposed to play out, according to the White House: Congress cut around $1 trillion in spending over the next 10 years as a “down payment” on a larger package in exchange for raising the debt limit through the 2012 election. The Gang of 12 is then supposed to come up with at least another $1.2 trillion in debt reduction through a mix of additional cuts – possibly to include cuts to Medicare and Social Security – and revenue increases. If seven members vote on a package along those lines, it will get an automatic up-or-down vote in both chambers of Congress – amendments won't be allowed.

If they can't cut a deal – or can't cut a deal that passes a deeply polarized Congress -- an automatic “trigger” kicks in, forcing an additional $1.2 trillion in cuts. Democrats had wanted it to include a mix of cuts and revenue increases in an effort to make Republicans negotiate in good faith, but that proved a sticking point with the GOP caucus. Eventually, the parties settled on a 50/50 mix of security and non-defense cuts – the the defense cuts were supposedly something Republicans would find intolerable.

The Democrats would have yet more leverage, they said, because the trigger would kick in at the same time as the Bush tax cuts are set to expire, which in theory would allow Obama to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans if the Gang of 12 comes up with a deal that isn't “balanced.”

It's an interesting legislative story, but none of it is going to happen.

Designed to Fail

The “super congress” that emerged from the deal offered a way to kick what had been an unbridgeable divide down the road a ways, but it doesn't alter the contours of the debate. While some Republicans have indicated that they might support closing a few loopholes to raise revenues, the party as a whole remains committed to their no-tax pledge. Democrats – especially House Democrats – have repeated that we need a “balanced” approach to cutting debt like a mantra. They've signaled they would be willing to accept some cuts to Social Security and Medicare, but not cuts sufficiently deep to entice enough GOP support for a package with new revenues.

 
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