On Monday, after three months of negotiations and repeated proclamations of optimism, Congressman Jeb Hensarling and Senator Patty Murray announced that the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction (informally known as the supercommittee) had failed to reach a budget agreement. Sadly, this was no surprise.
The committee was created last August, after a typically routine vote to raise the debt-ceiling led to a partisan showdown that brought the US economy to the brink of ‘catastrophe.’ In creating the committee, Congressional leadership argued that where the full Congress had failed, a group of 12 members (6 Democrats, 6 Republicans) would succeed. At the time, President Obama said, “Our problems are eminently solvable. And we know what we have to do to solve them…. Our challenge is the need to tackle our deficits over the long term.”
America’s fiscal challenges may still be solvable, but Congress has once again proven that it does not have the will or the political courage to make the tough choices. Ironically, as soon as the committee’s failure was made official, the partisan finger pointing began in earnest.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid blamed the “extreme voices” of the tea party for the debacle. Congressman Jim Jordan used the opportunity to “thank our Republican leadership for holding the line on taxes.” Senator Toomey of Pennsylvania pointed the finger at his “Democratic colleagues” who “refused to agree to any meaningful deficit reduction.” Even the President joined the fray saying, “too many Republicans in Congress that have refused to listen to the voices of reason.”
The committee’s failure and the ensuing partisanship are emblematic of the smallness of American politics today. Instead of believing that the supercommittee could reach an agreement, most observers had accepted its failure as a foregone conclusion. Why would we expect anything else? Over the past year, Congress has made clear that it will not summon the courage to make tough choices. And the so-called political ‘leaders’ in both parties are unwilling to force their constituencies to compromise. The root of the problem lies in what passes as ‘leadership’ today.
The media is enamoured with the Christie-style of politics: brazen, loud and unapologetic. This style of politics is on full display in the Republican presidential primary where the candidates have taken the political rhetoric “never apologizing for America,” to mean never apologize for anything. In the case of front-runner Mitt Romney, this means not apologizing for changing your core beliefs to whatever is politically expedient. For Texas Governor Rick Perry it means not apologizing for not knowing enough about the federal government to correctly recount the names of three agencies. For Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann it means not apologizing for mixing up basic American history.
On the Democratic-side we see the Pelosi-style of politics: demonize your opponent and feign defence of your core values. This means blaming the boogey-man Grover Norquist for the lack of progress. Senator John Kerry and others took to the air to declare that Norquist, a lone lobbyist, was the “13th member of the committee.” It also means declaring victory despite failure; after all, even with a Democrat in the White House and a Democratic controlled Senate, Pelosi somehow managed to save Medicare and Social Security singlehandedly.
Unfortunately, all of the above is not leadership but rather heightened partisanship. If you are going to call yourself a leader, you have to be accountable for the results.
That is what is most shocking in the supercommittee fallout, a lack of accountability. For the 10+ million Americans still unemployed and the millions more struggling to survive the economic recession, Congress has delivered merely another in a string of disappointments. At a time, when the country needs their ‘leaders’ to step up and make the tough choices necessary to get the American economy back on track, there is a resounding absence.
Politico, a prominent American political newspaper, published a list of “winners” and “losers” on Monday night. The winners were those people or entities that stood to gain from the supercommittee’s collapse, while the losers were those that stood to lose. What Politico cynically missed is that when America’s political class once again fails to step up and lead the country, there are no winners.