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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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Political scientist Seth Maskett analyzed the voting records of the Gang of 12 and concluded that it represents a “a pretty good balance between the parties,” featuring “roughly equal proportions of extremists and moderates” that “should agree on approximately nothing.” The most likely scenario is that this group won't come up with a deal that gets the seven votes needed to send it to the full Congress for a vote. If they do, it will by necessity be at least a somewhat “balanced” approach, and the GOP, terrified of its Tea Party base, has made it clear that such a deal is a non-starter – it'd be DOA on the Hill.

The “leverage” that's supposed to move these legislators closer together is one of those Beltway fantasies that bears no resemblance to any objective reality. Conservatives have little incentive to deal, in part because Democrats have already negotiated away substantial cuts in military spending in the “trigger.”

They did that first with a little sleight-of-hand. The savings are based on a 10-year baseline of defense spending, but future Congresses will decide the specifics of what gets cut. The 50/50 mix of defense and non-defense spending is only locked in for the first two years. After that, the cuts to projected spending could theoretically all come from the non-defense side. Second, “defense spending” doesn't only include the Pentagon's budget, but also dollars for agencies like the FBI, the Labor Department, Commerce and Homeland Security.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has already said that further cuts to the Pentagon budget “would result in a further round of very dangerous cuts across the board, defense cuts that I believe would do real damage to our security." A few days later, Obama himself agreed with that analysis, saying that more debt reduction had to come from “tax reform” and “modest adjustments to health care programs like Medicare.”

What this all means is, as defense analyst Winslow Wheeler noted, “the most likely alterations to DOD spending appear today to be significantly less than the much touted” numbers we're hearing about in the press. And that's a reduction from a very bloated defense budget that's increased by 43 percent since 9/11/01.

Bush Tax Cuts Will Remain

President Obama's promise to veto an extension of the Bush tax cuts on high earners if Congress doesn't pass a “balanced” debt package is similarly hollow. The bottom line remains that Republicans are willing to shut down the government if they can't have their way, and the Democrats are not (or the GOP is bluffing and the Dems won't call them on it, which has the same effect). And while most Democrats would like to raise taxes on the highest earners, they don't have any interest in raising rates on the middle class.

That creates a mismatch in leverage. We know how it is likely to turn out because we played this game just last year, when Republicans insisted on spending cuts and the extension of the Bush tax rates in exchange for a budget that included an extension of unemployment benefits and aid to cash-strapped states. That was the beginning of this era of legislation-by-hostage-taking, and it's unclear what would be different at the end of next year, unless we end up with a very different Congress.

Fortunately, there is only moderate pressure on Democrats as well. And here, the administration deserves credit: they insisted in exempting Social Security, Medicaid, a variety of anti-poverty programs and Medicare benefits from the trigger (it would force some cuts to Medicare providers, but not to Grandma and Grandpa's benefits).

 
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