The Supercommittee’s Avoidable Consequences

Early coverage overstated inevitability of cuts

So, it turns out the supercommittee has failed.

This should surprise no one, as most in the media had been skeptical from the beginning that the supercommittee was anything more than a kick-the-can exercise. It was widely speculated that a bipartisan supercommittee would do no better than Congress had in compromising and striking a deficit deal.

If there was any hope for the deal, much reporting suggested upon the committee’s creation, it rested in the threat of “sequestration”—the fancy word for the roundly unpalatable budget cuts that would be automatically triggered by the failure of the supercommittee to reach a consensus.

Here’s The Washington Post on the process when it was announced in early August:

The debt-limit agreement directs the new committee to identify at least $1.2 trillion in additional savings over the next decade. If the panel does not produce a plan by the end of November—or if Congress does not adopt it by the end of the year—more than $100 billion a year would be cut automatically from the budget, starting in January 2013.

The Republicans would lose on defense; the Democrats would lose on entitlements; and all would lose on across-the-board cuts that were not thoughtfully distributed. This looming lose-lose-lose scenario—an “onerous” enforcement mechanism, it was called—was supposed to be all the incentive the supercommitteee would need to reach an agreement. This trigger, at least initially, was described in the media in a way that made the consequences of a supercommittee failure seem swift and unavoidable; “guaranteed” and “automatic.” The impression was that there was no way the Congress could wriggle free of doing its job and making some decisions about the deficit this time.

From Fox News:

That trigger, which commences across-the-board spending cuts if the committee fails to meet its goals, makes this different from your typical Washington blue-ribbon panel. Whatever comes out of this super committee has to pass Congress by December 23 to keep the trigger from kicking in.

Or the Associated Press:

But there’s a real price to be paid if the committee deadlocks or if either the House or Senate rejects the panel’s recommendations: the threat of deep, across-the-board spending cuts that would strike GOP priorities like defense and programs for the poor that are priorities for Democrats….

“The answer’s pretty obvious. Hanging over the head of the joint committee is this trigger that is pretty drastic,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., a driving force behind the super committee concept contained in the debt ceiling legislation President Barack Obama signed Tuesday.

But wait. As we have learned more recently, as the supercommittee inched closer to its deadline, it turns out, there is an out, and it’s not unprecedented. Many reports from the time the committee was established now read as if they gave far too much credence to the inevitability of the consequences of not striking a deal.

As was noted in a Wall Street Journal editorial written by Phil Gramm and Mike Solon last week, “The Budget Sequester’s Silver Lining,” Congress made sure it could wriggle free of these “automatic cuts” should they be called for:

When Congress passed the Budget Control Act setting up the sequester process, it also repealed the expiration dates in Gramm-Rudman, bringing back to life provisions enabling the president and Congress to propose alternatives after the sequester is ordered. Gramm-Rudman never intended across-the-board cuts to be used for anything other than a prod to action and an impetus to force hard decisions lest the dreaded sequester be unleashed on the programs Congress cherished.

While Timothy Noah made this point in The New Republic in late October, why wasn’t the media onto this gimmick from the beginning?

There were exceptions. NPR’s Michele Norris did a segment on how the automatic cuts could be averted on August 3, and an editorial in The New York Times published on August 2, the day the supercommittee was created, was all over the dubiousness of trigger mechanisms.

That trigger mechanism, of course, is another fundamentally antidemocratic gimmick designed to take legislative choices out of the hands of elected legislators. It is based on the premise that lawmakers can’t be trusted to make hard choices on their own, but history makes clear that such triggers also can’t be trusted. The Gramm-Rudman-Hollings budget law of 1985 had ferocious automatic cuts, which—surprise—Congress turned out not to like. Lawmakers used tricks and loopholes to get around them.

Supercommittees and trigger mechanisms have a terrible track record in Washington because they constrain responsibility and political choice. The world changes every month, and legislative straitjackets are almost always discarded after a big show of lacing them on. This bill, like its predecessors, will probably be sharply modified years from now after the fight that produced it is long forgotten. In the meantime, voters should be wary of politicians who substitute gimmickry for governing.

Patrick Sharma likewise had an opinion piece in Politico, “Triggers to cut deficits don’t work” that made the point and walked readers through how the very similar “Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act” of 1985 didn’t work.

Most reporters seem to have caught on in the last month as the deadline drew nearer, with little sign of a deal. But before that, too many were slow on the trigger.

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Erika Fry is a former assistant editor at CJR.