Nearly 100 members of the House of Representatives from both parties have signed a letter urging the so-called supercommittee to go big and tackle $4 trillion in deficit reduction instead of the $1.2 trillion it has been tasked.
The letter says that “all options for mandatory and discretionary spending and revenues must be on the table”—giving the kind of increased cover necessary to inspire an outbreak of political courage on the supercommittee.
The leaders of this House effort, Idaho Republican Mike Simpson and North Carolina Democrat Heath Schuler, have managed to corral a coalition of Congressmen from across the political spectrum—not just centrist Democrats and Republicans, but representatives like the leader of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and the Congressional Black Caucus. Their cross-aisle commitment recalls the words of Thomas Jefferson—“every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle.”
At the same time, there has been a similar effort in the Senate. Gang of Six member Mark Warner from Virginia recently said there were nearly 40 senators actively encouraging the supercommittee to reach that $4 trillion target, assuring them that if they had the courage to tackle both spending and revenues, they would find support among their Congressional colleagues.
Taken together, that means there are at least 140 members of Congress who understand the severity of our economic circumstance and the urgency to act.
They have reason to feel such a sense of urgency.
Currently, the supercommittee must propose a minimum of $1.2 trillion in cuts by November 23. If seven members of the 12-person committee can agree on a path going forward, it would then be sent to both the House and the Senate for a simple up-or-down vote.
If they failed to forge an agreement with at least some bipartisan support, automatic 15-percent cuts would be taken from both defense and domestic discretionary spending—the worst of both worlds, politically and practically.
Nonetheless, the usual combination of lobbyists, ideological absolutists and all-or-nothing hyper-partisans are hoping for a continuing of the kind of political brinksmanship they can exploit to advance their own narrow agenda. There are too many in and around Congress who embrace the cynical idea that “the worse things get, the better they are for me politically.”
They have imposed their ill-will before, dismissing the Bowles-Simpson plan as well as the Gang of Six, then derailing the $4 trillion grand bargain that President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner tried to forge in August as the U.S. went to the brink of default. We found ourselves downgraded by S&P, who specifically cited the pervasive atmosphere of “political brinksmanship” that was causing global investors to doubt America’s ability to self-govern effectively.
Instead of adding a sense of urgency, some in Congress say that the experience shows that the U.S. can suffer another downgrade without much calamity.
Congressman Tim Ryan, a Democrat on the House Budget Committee, told Reuters Thursday that he felt the U.S. could weather another downgrade if they failed to cut $4 trillion, the number which the S&P explicitly put forward in their downgrade after the dysfunctional debt ceiling crisis of this past summer. This led the news agency to conclude that “a growing number of lawmakers do not think another downgrade of the country’s AAA rating will harm America’s economy, raising questions about how much pressure Congress is under to fix the intractable budget deficit.”
That kind of complacency while the train is coming down the track causes people to lose faith in Congress. And there is no shortage of that at the moment.
But there’s a statistic that might cause defenders of the unsustainable status quo to shake out of their slumber: 9 percent.
That’s the current approval rating for members of Congress. It is a historic low, spurring Sen. John McCain to joke on Twitter: “We’re down to paid staffers and blood relatives.” And while everyone in Washington is underwater, congressional Republicans fare the worst in polls, especially from independent voters, which means that there is a political cost to the supercommittee’s failure. That might also cause some minds to focus.
There’s an old joke in Washington that “every bill is a jobs bill. It’s your job.” Congress should be feeling the urgency to act, to take serious steps to reduce the long-term deficit and debt. To do so, everyone will have to give a little bit.
Democrats will have to agree to some form of entitlement reform to bend the long-term cost curve. They will not succeed in raising taxes outright, as some on the liberal wing of the party might like, but some form of tax reform is also essential. As the Bowles-Simpson commission showed, we can actually lower some tax rates and raise revenues to pay down the debt by closing loopholes—those special interest earmarks embedded in the tax code.
This should be the no-brainer compromise. The key sticking point is whether congressional Republicans will consider that a tax-increase because it is not deficit neutral. But then deficits are precisely why we’re in this fix. Dealing with the generational theft of deficits and debt was allegedly the original purpose of the Tea Party, not pledging fealty to anti-tax absolutists.
The good news is that now nearly 100 members of the House and 40 members of the Senate—courageous individuals from both parties—are stepping up pressure on the supercommittee to take advantage of their historic opportunity and obligation. If they succeed in meeting the ambitious $4 trillion target, America will be placed on a stable fiscal footing going forward and our economy will grow. If they fail, we will find ourselves in a deepening spiral of downgrades, debt and draconian cuts that could gut the faltering recovery.
Now is the time to ask your congressman and senator if they have signed onto these bipartisan letters of support to the supercommittee—and if not, why not. This fight is occurring in real time and we are starting to see who in Congress is serious about solving the problem—and who is more interested in perpetuating the influence of special interests over the national interest.