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Capitol Outlook: Out of the gridlock and into the fire

Don’t count out the ‘super committee;’ it just might pull off a momentous debt reduction deal


Who hasn’t strolled into a store, seen a “You Break It, You Own It” sign and silently resolved to be extra careful, lest they be held responsible for damage? If only our politicians could be held to such a modest standard.

During the next few weeks, our elected representatives, the pundits and everyone else with a computer keyboard will debate what to do about the ever-escalating debt that’s been run up by the federal government.

Yes, President Obama hasn’t lived up to the expectations of many, and his poll numbers reflect the unease across the land. But it’s the post-9/11 Congress of the United States that voted for and appropriated the record debt in which we now swim. The plain truth is that Congress broke the piggy bank during the first decade of this century and, like a drunken sailor, spent money it didn’t have and gave away enormous revenue streams on the premise that cutting taxes would generate economic growth. It didn’t work.

That said, Congress now has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to throw a lifeline to its citizens and their children’s children and atone for its sins of the past decade.

A unique window of opportunity will be open for a few short weeks this fall that could allow wiser heads and responsible legislators to put the pieces back together again and, perhaps, repair the 88 percent disapproval rating Congress so richly deserves.

This all came to a head after what seemed like months of partisan squabbling this summer over raising the federal debt ceiling. Rather than find a solution, Congress punted right before it adjourned for its August recess. It dropped the ball into the laps of 12 members who are officially known as the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction.

This “super committee” must approve a bill by Nov. 23 — two days before Thanksgiving — that will trim the federal deficit by at least $1.2 trillion between fiscal years 2012 and 2021.

The full Congress then has until Dec. 23 — two days before Christmas — to approve the legislation, without amendment, in a straight up-or-down vote.

If the super committee can’t come to a bipartisan agreement or if both chambers of Congress fail to pass the super committee’s bill, an automatic $1.2 trillion across-the-board cut will be triggered in discretionary spending. Such cuts would apply to Medicare providers, but not to Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare beneficiaries, and civil and military employees’ pay. With so many programs off the table, it is feared that the defense budget could bear the brunt of the cuts.

If there are any budding alchemists out there with the long-lost recipe for turning lead into gold, now’s the time to raise your hand.


Although the outlook for a grand compromise at first glance appears grim, given the hyperpartisanship we’ve seen out of our elected representatives of late, there are a number of reasons to hope that reason will prevail.

First, with the defense budget facing enormous cuts in this game of chicken, mountains will be moved and reluctant compromises will be made at the last minute to ensure that this particular Armageddon does not come to pass. The threat by defense hawk Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., to quit the super committee on the eve of the panel’s first meeting tells me that partisan ideology will fall to the wayside before major defense cuts are made.

Second, congressional leaders were stung by Standard & Poor’s rationale for downgrading the U.S. credit rating. The company basically said it did not have much confidence in the U.S. policymaking process. Being held up to public ridicule for allowing such a serious matter to devolve into a political circus is not an experience they want to repeat.

Third, with an 88 percent disapproval rating, most members of Congress are beginning to realize that they are not immune to a “throw all of the incumbent rascals out, regardless of party affiliation” sentiment that has building in the body politic for a number of years. To fail to at least appear to be working to solve our budget problems is a recipe for electoral disaster.

Fourth, much of the hard work of identifying the trillions of dollars that must be trimmed from future spending has already been done by the Simpson-Bowles Commission, the bipartisan Senate “Gang of Six” and in President Obama’s negotiations with House Speaker John Boehner.

Fifth, it will only take one member of Congress to rise above partisan politics and produce a 7-5 majority vote of the 12-member super committee. In the words of former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, “A statesman does what he believes is best for his country. A politician does what best gets him re-elected.”

Sixth, a minority of the House will not be allowed to ruin the holiday season for everyone. In the end, there will be enough members from both sides of the aisle who are willing to have half a loaf rather than no loaf at all. The fact is that the final 269-161 House vote to raise the debt ceiling and establish the super committee was bipartisan, with majorities of both parties voting for the deal.

Seventh, in an unprecedented move, Democrats, who are the majority party in the Senate, agreed to appoint a highly regarded Republican congressional staffer with two decades of experience in building consensus across the aisle as the staff director of the super committee.

Lastly, the super committee is a creature and a creation of the top congressional leaders who have built their careers on Capitol Hill, love the institution and hope to leave a legacy. I suspect that Republicans will want the 2012 elections to be a referendum on the president’s performance in office rather than their inability to extend their hands across the aisle and make a serious down payment toward solving the nation’s budgetary problems.

The non-confrontational response of Republican leaders to President Obama’s relatively “hot” speech to a joint session of Congress on Sept. 8 announcing his plan to create jobs was a giant step forward.

I could be wrong. But 36 years of Washington experience tells me there’s reason for hope. n

Michael Sciulla testified more than 30 times on Capitol Hill during a 28-year career at BoatUS, where he managed the organization’s government relations and public affairs operations while serving as editor of its 650,000-circulation flagship publication.

This article originally appeared in the October 2011 issue.



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