The day before the S&P downgrading of the United States debt, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal lauded the virtues of stubbornness at the Republican National Committee summer meeting in Tampa, Florida.
“It pays to be stubborn,” Jindal said. “The press is constantly urging compromise. They root for it like it is the highest possible virtue, the sign of true maturity and achievement in life.” This all-or-nothing impulse is what led 77 percent of the American people to conclude that Congress acted more like “spoiled children” than “responsible adults” during the debt ceiling debate. Not incidentally, it is also the logic that led to our downgrade, according to S&P, which cited “the political brinksmanship of recent months” making “America’s governance and policymaking becoming less stable, less effective, and less predictable.”
The political crisis of hyper-partisanship created our current fiscal crisis by compounding the problem of unsustainable deficits and debt. Now the next challenge is hurtling toward Congress in the form of the Joint Special Committee, whose 12 members will be chosen by party leaders over the next week.
This bipartisan supercommittee is empowered to find at least $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction over the next decade. The broad policies necessary to put our nation on stronger fiscal footing are well known—they include tax reform and entitlement reform and have been analyzed in reports ranging from the Bowles-Simpson Commission to the Gang of Six. This Joint Committee will be the first empowered to bring its proposals to an up-or-down vote. And the panel has a deadline to do it—by the end of this year.
The most important question is what people will be selected to serve on the committee. If ideological stubbornness is the key virtue partisan leaders are looking for in appointees, more political paralysis looms. The initial selections, announced by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid late Tuesday afternoon do not inspire much confidence in this regard. They include Senators Patty Murray of Washington, John Kerry of Massachusetts and Max Baucus of Montana.
If the goal is to move from brinksmanship to bipartisanship, these picks are a troubling sign of things to come. Here’s why: Reid intentionally decided to sidestep any member of the Gang of Six—including centrist Mark Warner, Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad and liberal Dick Durbin, who also served on the Bowles-Simpson Commission with distinction, managing to find common ground with conservative Sen. Tom Coburn on contentious issues like raising the retirement age. Given that this group has already done the hard work of reasoning together across the political aisle, they would seem to be obvious selections for the Joint Committee. But this is Washington.
Instead, the co-Chair of the committee, Patty Murray, is also the chairwoman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee—making her a blatantly political pick who will work hand in glove with Reid. John Kerry is a fine selection to the extent that the 2004 presidential nominee at least commands national attention, but he has not been part of the bipartisan groups that have been deep-diving on deficit and debt reduction to date. Max Baucus is the chairman of the powerful Budget Committee with plenty of bipartisan bona fides, but he voted against the Bowles-Simpson Commission recommendations at least in part because of his concerns that farm subsidies headed to his home state might be affected. That should be a disqualifying vote for serving on this committee.
Because Democrats dissed the Gang of Six, it virtually guarantees that the GOP will bypass it as well. As former senator Alan Simpson—the respected co-leader of the Bowles-Simpson Commission—told me last week: “If you see the leadership not appointing members of the Gang of Six to the new commission of 12, you’ll know they don’t want to get anything done.” Well, that is what we are seeing right now.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has already drawn a stubborn line in the sand, saying he will not appoint anyone willing to even consider revenue increases. (As Speaker John Boehner found out in his failed attempt to forge a $4 trillion grand bargain with President Obama, closing the tax loopholes that are essentially earmarks embedded in the tax code is now considered the same as tax hikes—even if rates are reduced—in the Tea Party’s new math.)
McConnell also dismissed previous bipartisan deficit reduction plans in a July 31st interview on CNN’s State of the Union, in which he sought to distance this joint committee from Bowles-Simpson. “We haven’t had anything like this before,” he said. “It is not a commission that consists of outsiders.”
“Outsiders”—that word choice reflects the insularity of the congressional echo chamber. Instead of “outsiders” like Simpson and former White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles, who are presumably tainted by their independence, McConnell seems to prefer the appointment of predictable partisan insiders like Jon Kyl of Arizona—a man who walked out of deficit reduction meetings with Vice President Biden and who infamously defended making false statements on the Senate floor in a debate over defunding Planned Parenthood by having a flack explain that it was “not intended to be a factual statement.”
Perhaps we can hold out hope an actual budget expert like Sen. Rob Portman or a GOP leader with bipartisan credibility like Lamar Alexander will be appointed. Maybe, just maybe, Tom Coburn will get on this committee as a much-deserved capstone to his fiscal-conservative career.
But remember, Senate appointments are supposed to provide the dose of sober statesmanship—and the unannounced House appointments are likely to reflect even more partisan sensibilities. Already, Eric Cantor has reaffirmed his no-new-revenue pledge, while Nancy Pelosi has promised that entitlement reform will be avoided by her yet-to-be-announced appointees. The net result is a Joint Committee that seems likely to be stuffed with the ideologically stubborn, receptive to special interest arguments, and therefore unlikely to achieve bipartisan agreement. It is a recipe for failure at the very time we need just such a Joint Committee to succeed.
This is the problem with such ideological “stubbornness”—it is now the status quo in our polarized politics. It is a hyper-partisan vice parading as high-minded virtue. Even the urgency provided by the first downgrading in our history seems unlikely to dislodge it.
In the past, we could at least depend on a crisis to unite politicians to act in the national interest. The fact that no longer seems to be the case reflects the deep disconnect between Congress and the common-sense, non-ideological problem-solvers who make up the vast majority of the American people. If you’re looking for reasons that Congress’ approval ratings are at an all-time low, start there.