Interpreting the Deficit Supecommittee Selections: All Hope Is Not Lost

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Now that House minority leader Nancy Pelosi has named Reps. Chris Van Hollen, Jim Clyburn and Xavier Becerra last three members of the “super-committee” tasked under the debt limit deal with producing $1.5 trillion in deficit reductions by Thanksgiving, we can prepare for an avalanche of predictions about how deadlock is inevitable and punting of the deficit problem unavoidable.

Fair enough. As the debt limit debate showed, Congress excels at finding elaborate ways of avoiding deadlines and obscuring unpopular decisions. The super-committee’s selection by the four leaders almost guarantees that its ultimate decisions will be made by the same people who had so much trouble agreeing on the temporary deal earlier this month: Pelosi, House Speaker John Boehner, Senate minority leader McConnell and majority leader Harry Reid.

Consequently, expectations are low. Hardened Congress watchers expect the committee to dodge the debt-deal measures that were intended to force a compromise; the most popular theory is that the committee will kick the deal to the tax writing committees, allowing them to mull the problem until after the 2012 election in the hopes of passing something during the lame duck Congress.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. The leaders have actually appointed to the committee a sufficient number of compromisers that, in combination with those who will simply do what they’re told, Congress could reach a compelling deal in November. Here’s the logic for hope:

Sure Pat Toomey would rather eat his mother than raise taxes. But Rob Portman is an entirely different matter. He was a vocal supporter of the Gang of Six deal that envisioned both revenue increases through tax reform and entitlement cuts. McConnell’s inclusion of the moderate Ohio budget expert plants a competent and experienced player in the room, someone who can both match wits with Jon Kyl, the brainy and devious representative of GOP leadership, and soften the Republican position. Similarly on the House GOP side, Jeb Hensarling is a fire-breather, but David Camp, the chairman of Ways and Means, is reasonable and has, for example, good relations with Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner.

There are also potential compromisers on the Democratic side. Max Baucus is a relative centrist, John Kerry has improved his cross-aisle performance since his days as an aspiring presidential candidate, and Patty Murray, though in charge of the Democratic re-election effort for ’12, will make a deal if Reid and the Democratic Senate leadership tells her too. As staunch liberals, Pelosi’s picks inspire less confidence, but Van Hollen is capable of reaching across the aisle.

Will a deal happen? Probably not. But for those who expected a Potemkin supercommittee, the presence of knowledgeable centrists, top tax writers, and powerful leadership representatives maintains the possibility of a real deal by November.