There They Go Again: More Political Theater

Just a few weeks ago, budget deliberations centered around a “grand bargain,” in which Democrats would get some loosening of the austere discretionary budget caps (ie, the “sequester”) and an increase in the nation’s statutory debt ceiling in exchange for cuts to mandatory spending programs (such as Social Security and Medicare). While objectionable, this script at least made some logical sense in a debate over budgets. But as the beginning of the new fiscal year approached with no budget and a breach of the debt ceiling not far behind, House Republicans decided to force a government shutdown “to get something out of this,” though as  Rep. Marlin Stutzman (R-Ind.) acknowledged, it’s unclear “what that even is.” At first, it appeared they were going to demand mandatory spending cuts as the condition to pass a continuing resolution (CR) and demand some changes to Obamacare as the condition for raising the debt ceiling. In the end, the Tea Party pressured the House Republican leadership to tie defunding Obamacare to passing even a 2-month CR. As a result, the government has been shut down since October 1.

With public disquiet about the government shutdown growing and the breach of the debt ceiling imminent, House Republicans have come up with a new bold idea: a bipartisan, bicameral “supercommittee” to tackle thorny budget issues and come up with policies for deficit reduction. According to the House leadership this supercommittee will help address the impasse that has shutdown the government and the pending debt default (on October 17, according to the Treasury Department). Given that the U.S. could default on its debt within the next 9 days, it is rather strange the legislation that would create this supercommittee provides no deadlines for the supercommittee to wrap up its work. Even stranger: A prior “supercommittee” that was convened in response to the last debt ceiling showdown in 2011 led to the sequester that now forms a key issue of contention in budget politics.

What is the supercommittee tasked  to do? According to Roll Call, Speaker John Boehner said, “There’s no boundaries here. There’s nothing on the table, there’s nothing off the table. I’m trying to do everything I can to bring people together and have a conversation.” But apparently Speaker Boehner has not had time to read the bill, because its text absolutely specifies what is “on” and “off” the table. According to the text of the proposed bill (H.R. 3273) the purpose of the supercommittee—no doubt it will be popularly known as the “Bicameral Working Group on Deficit Reduction and Economic Growth”— is to recommend to the House and Senate (1) overall levels of discretionary spending, (2) changes to the debt limit, and (3) reforms to mandatory spending programs. Tax revenues are pretty conspicuously not mentioned here. It should also be noted that the bill does not reopen the government or raise the debt ceiling. While the supercommittee has its conversation, the government remains closed and the debt ceiling could still be breached on October 17. This is pretty weak tea even by the low standards of supercommittees.