The congressional super committee tasked with reshaping the social contract between the government and the American people has not had a public meeting since the middle of last month. The next public hearing, meanwhile, is scheduled for October 26th, more than a month after last one was held. On Wednesday, the Gang of Six, which also conducted much of its deliberation behind closed doors, met privately with the super committee members.
As the panel's opacity becomes more conspicuous, centrist advocates have begun to defend the necessity of shielding the public from its decision-making process. "[G]reater openness by the panel, officially known as the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, would actually be harmful to the public interest. Private meetings are essential to give the committee’s six Republicans and six Democrats the freedom to step away from party orthodoxies, conduct serious negotiations and search for common ground, rather than engage in political posturing," wrote Jordan Tama in a widely read New York Times op-ed Wednesday.
The fundamental problem that the committee faces is that it is attempting to pass legislation that is widely opposed by the American people. Large majorities are against cutting Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid or other elements of the social safety net. There is similarly little appetite for significant tax increases on the middle class. The only deficit cutting provisions that are palatable to broad swaths of the American electorate -- cuts to the Pentagon and tax hikes on the wealthy -- are fiercely opposed by key power centers in Washington.
A group empaneled earlier and tasked with a similar aim failed to come to consensus amid public opposition, a point Tama makes to bolster the case for secrecy. "History reveals the importance of extensive private talks for members of a bipartisan group to get to know one another and pursue compromises. Eleven of the 18 members of President Obama’s fiscal commission endorsed a $4 trillion deficit reduction package, but only after months of private deliberations. When the panel did hold public hearings, they resulted in partisan grandstanding about fiscal stimulus and health care reform," he writes.
ABC News reported Wednesday that the Gang of Six and the super panel members were mum about what went on behind closed doors.
Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), a co-chair of the committee, earlier expressed frustration over criticism of the panel's lack of transparency, noting that pundits had urged both parties to get into a room and hammer out a compromise -- only to criticize the process when they did just that. "It's interesting. Everybody says, 'If they'd just get into a room by themselves, they could figure this out,' and we are very clear that however we get to this, it will be a very public process -- it has to be," Murray said. "I think it is important for us to be able to be open and honest with each other."
"I remember well one time when I was very little and I was fighting with my brother every other minute and my mother put us in a backroom and said don't come out until you got it figured out," Murray added at the time. "We stared at each other for a while, but we came out friends."
So far this Congress, the GOP has managed to extract significant spending concessions without agreeing to tax hikes in return, using the threat of default or a government shutdown as leverage. But since the super committee doesn't currently face a threat of that sort, failure to strike a deal is a distinct possibility -- and one that may have few repercussions. Indeed, the automatic cuts that would supposedly be triggered if the committee is unable to reach an agreement may never come to pass.
As HuffPost has reported, those cuts don't begin to take effect until 2013, meaning that Congress will have more than a year -- a timespan that includes a lame-duck Congress -- to reverse itself:
The automatic cuts -- known as sequestration -- are often discussed in Washington as if they're certain, an inevitability that Congress won't be able to prevent. But on the same day those cuts would go into effect, the Bush tax rates, which President Obama extended for two years, are set to expire, leading to an "automatic" tax hike that is treated in Washington as anything but inevitable. (That the two coming policy changes are approached so differently -- cuts are expected; expiring tax breaks for the wealthy are brushed aside -- is a window into Washington's priorities.) A host of other tax cuts and credits will expire on the same day, including the alternative minimum tax, ethanol tax credits, renewable energy credits and others important to businesses, the wealthy and the middle class.
A lame-duck Congress would have two months after the 2012 election to stave off the expiration of both that tax policy and the super committee's "automatic" cuts.
The most likely scenario: The super committee locks up along partisan lines and, after the 2012 election, bipartisan negotiators deal with the tax cuts and the super committee's sequestration cuts, along with a basket of other expiring provisions, in one set of negotiations. Democrats will be pressured by the coming sequestration, while Republicans will be motivated by the expiration of the Bush tax cuts. And all of their negotiations will take place in a political and economic climate impossible to predict today.