Members of Congress used to have a foolproof way of dealing with controversial problems: They’d appoint a commission to look into them.
The panel would then spend months holding hearings, conducting research and developing scenarios. These components would then be bound into a massive report, which would be released in the most public way possible. Then lawmakers would ignore the report and get back their real job — raising re-election funds.
But our federal legislature has since evolved. Consider what happened when budget negotiations collapsed last summer. Did Congress appoint a commission? No. Instead, we got a spanking new “super committee.” At press time, this 12-member panel had less than a week to reach recommendations that would cut the 10-year deficit by at least $1.2 trillion.
I’m predicting this group will not meet its mandate. It will likely fail because neither side really wants to compromise.
It was supposed to be different this time. Lawmakers put some stingers in place that would trigger nearly $1 trillion in automatic cuts should an impasse occur. Most of this feared “sequestration” would target discretionary spending and defense outlays.
When the super committee was formed, the sales pitch was that these looming cuts would be so severe that participants would be compelled to strike a deal. Politically, though, a failed deal might be the best option on the table.
Besides, Congress always can vote to hold off on any so-called automatic cuts that might prove problematic.
While this makes for fascinating theater, it glosses over some disturbing realities. Most troubling of all, our government’s treasury is racing toward insolvency. Since the Kennedy administration, the people we have elected have been regularly approving spending plans that exceed revenues.
Lawmakers love to tell constituents about the new projects and federal dollars they have brought home. Spreading good news is a lot more fun to do that than explaining why benefits are being cut or taxes are being raised.
So it’s no surprise that members of Congress focus primarily on things that help ensure a successful re-election. It’s a good long-term strategy for them. But it’s not so great for the rest of us.