Supercommittee fails to identify even bogus cuts

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It took a fictional jury of "12 Angry Men" 96 minutes to agree on a verdict of not guilty. It took "12 good people," as supercommittee co-chairman Jeb Hensarling referred to them, three months and countless hours to produce ... nothing.

Just to put things in perspective, the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction was charged with finding a minimum of $1.2 trillion in savings over 10 years. These wouldn't have been cuts in the normal sense. A salary cut means my paycheck is smaller each month. A deficit cut, in federal budget speak, isn't a reduction in the deficit. The only thing being cut is the rate at which the deficit is growing.

Had the supercommittee fulfilled its mission, the US would face cumulative deficits of $3.5 trillion over the next 10 years, compared with $4.7 trillion without cuts, according to projections by the Congressional Budget Office.

The deficit grows. The debt grows. Nothing gets cut.

Now that the supercommittee has declared defeat, automatic spending cuts (again, in the projected growth of spending) of $1.2 trillion are to kick in starting in 2013. Congress is already busy hatching schemes to prevent this "sequester" from actually happening.

Committee members were out in force on the Sunday talk shows, pointing fingers at one another. The good news is, Congress's approval rating (9 percent in one poll) can't go much lower. Come November 2012, the American public may just decide to give incumbents that small share of its vote.

While direct blame rests with supercommittee, there's more than enough to go around. Here is my short list of candidates:

1. Blame Congress. The fact that a supercommittee had to be created as part of a deal to raise the debt ceiling in August speaks for itself. If lawmakers, both Democrats and Republicans, were "serious about cutting spending, they wouldn't have to hide behind a 12-member committee," says Veronique de Rugy, a senior research fellow at George Mason University's Mercatus Center in Arlington, Virginia.

Even under sequestration, federal spending would grow by $1.65 trillion from 2012 to 2021, compared with $1.8 trillion without it, de Rugy says. This is hardly draconian. If lawmakers had spent as much time considering the Simpson-Bowles Commission's deficit-reduction plan as they do meeting with lobbyists, they wouldn't have had to pass off their work to a supercommittee.

2. Blame the Republicans. They jeered when President Barack Obama harped on the tax break for corporate jet owners, part of his class-warfare stump speech. Yet when it came time to put a proposal on the table, the six Republican members of the supercommittee included the elimination of that very same perk in their list of revenue raisers. There is little evidence to suggest this gang was willing to "go big," as some deficit hawks had urged. In fact, the failure to propose any major changes to the tax code or entitlement programs is clear evidence of their choice to "go small" or not at all.

3. Blame Grover Norquist. The president of Americans for Tax Reform, a taxpayer advocacy group, asks elected officials to sign a pledge that commits them to never raise taxes on anyone. The pledge has 279 signatories, almost all Republicans, in the 112th Congress.

Norquist views the elimination of tax breaks as a tax increase. That's nonsense. A tax break for one industry or interest group, without a revenue offset, means a bigger deficit. That's why such breaks are called "tax expenditures." They're government spending by another name.

Besides, when Congress writes an exemption or deduction into the tax code, unless it cuts spending (see definition of real cut, above), eventually someone else's taxes go up. Where was Norquist's pledge when an estimated $1.1 trillion of annual tax expenditures was created?

4. Blame the Democrats. For Democrats, the quid pro quo of deficit reduction is entitlement cuts in exchange for tax increases on the rich, be it through the expiration of the Bush tax cuts for top earners or increases in marginal rates. Preserving Medicare as we know it isn't an option. There isn't enough money to confiscate from the rich, even at usurious tax rates, for the government to keep the promises it made to seniors. It's disingenuous for the Democrats to pretend it can save something, like the Social Security Trust Fund, that isn't there.

5. Blame George W. Bush. Obama blames him for everything else. Why not this?

6. Blame Obama. The president didn't want to sully his hands or his reputation by getting involved in something as trivial as the nation's fiscal health. So he stayed away, then went away, and came back once it was all over but the shoutin'. Obama can now run against a do-nothing Congress and hope that the electorate likes his do-something initiatives, including health-care reform.

7. Blame ourselves. We elected these folks. We have the power to vote them out of office. We may get more of the same, but we need to make it clear that our votes are conditional on no more of the same behavior.

Caroline Baum
Caroline Baum, author of "Just What I Said," is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.

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