The Quicksand of Super Committee Politics

on November 03, 2011 at 1:18 PM

The Congressional Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction (a.k.a. Super Committee) is struggling to reach agreement on a minimum of $1.2 trillion of deficit reductions over ten years.

Finding an average of $120 billion per year with $3.6 trillion in annual spending might seem easy from the outside. In an election year, however, a vote to increase taxes or reduce a government program can become political quicksand sinking reelection bids.

Do not believe claims that two reasonable people writing on the back of a napkin could balance the budget. Yes, a list could be generated but could it get 218 votes on the House floor and 60 votes on the Senate floor? The political reality is that certain approaches to reducing the deficit are not acceptable to large numbers of voters or special interest groups. Many of these people and groups donate hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars to political campaigns. Members of Congress operate within this set of constraints.

Perhaps the most that can be expected from the committee is a first building block for a long-term plan to tackle the deficit.

One starting point for understanding the politics of the Super Committee is to unpack federal spending into its constituent parts. By looking at the different areas of spending and their respective size, the politics of deficit reduction become clearer without even considering partisan perspectives.

The entire pie of the federal budget is about $3.6 trillion. Well over half, $2.3 trillion, is the mandatory spending of Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, and income security programs, among other programs. Over $200 billion is the interest payment on the national debt. Cutting mandatory spending is a political lightening rod and it is reckless to stop paying interest. This is why the prime target for reductions is the $1.3 trillion of “discretionary” spending, which includes national security and domestic programs.

Cutting discretionary spending also has consequences. Take the $670 billion of defense spending requested in February. Over $118 billion is war spending. Another $143 billion is military personnel supporting pay and benefits for the military. Cutting funding for armed forces in combat and cutting back their pay and benefits are not popular prospects.

Around $409 billion of the $670 billion is non-war and non-military personnel Department of Defense spending. This consists of operations and maintenance, weapons procurement, military construction, and research and development. Deep reductions in these activities erode the size, training, and equipment of U.S. armed forces. Arguments can be made that domestic and fiscal needs are top priorities right now, but these arguments run against allegations of being weak on national defense.

Domestic discretionary programs total about $530 billion of spending. Some argue deficit reduction could be met by simply reducing inefficiency. Cutting inefficiencies, however, does not get to $120 billion of savings. Decisions have to be made to cut programs and eliminate federal and contractor jobs. Election year politics leaves members of Congress open to criticism back home for cutting deeply into domestic programs, such as education, science and technology, transportation, and energy. In short, there are no easy cuts when other people are judging you by them.

A series of proposals have been floated by both Democrats and Republicans that involve both spending reductions and revenue increases. The proposals have been quickly rejected by the opposing side. How an agreement will be reached in this climate is not yet clear just three weeks from the Super Committee’s November 23 deadline.

There are reports that the Super Committee might develop a fail-safe compromise to assure it does not fail and jeopardize the debt ceiling agreement from August. One compromise, which is not exactly a profile in courage, is to pass a deficit plan that delays all major reductions until later in the ten-year time horizon in fiscal years 2015-2021. “Super Subcommittees” could be formed to spend the next year developing detailed proposals for major categories of revenue and spending for the new 113th Congress.

The Super Committee was given a real mission impossible. The “Gang of Six” Senators, the Bowles-Simpson Presidential Commission, and the first ten months of the current Congress were not able to agree on an approach. Perhaps the most that can be expected from the committee is a first building block for a long-term plan to tackle the deficit.

James Windle is a federal employee who has worked for executive branch agencies, the Executive Office of the President, and Congress. The views and opinions of the writer are his solely and are independent from the United States Government.