With Harsh Scrutiny and High Expectations, the Deficit Supercommittee Starts Work

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The members of the powerful Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, colloquially known as the “supercommittee,” brought first-day-of-school optimism and a veneer of bipartisanship to their inaugural meeting on Thursday morning. Don’t expect it to last.

The mantra of the meeting, which consisted of vague opening statements and the approval of a rules package, was that the supercommittee will succeed because it has to: the long-term U.S. deficit and debt problems are too dire, the short-term consequences politically unpalatable. The committee is tasked with pinpointing $1.5 trillion in spending cuts by Thanksgiving, a target set by the Budget Control Act that barely skirted a potential debt default last month. Failure will automatically trigger $1.2 trillion in painful reductions to defense and discretionary spending programs that both parties want to protect. And yet, the committee’s very creation underscores the difficulty it faces in rising above the legislative gridlock paralyzing Washington.  In recent months, a slew of special bipartisan task forces have tried to hammer out sweeping deficit-reduction packages to steer the U.S. back toward fiscal sustainability. None worked. The 12-member committee–composed of six members from each party, three from each chamber of Congress—have 77 days to succeed where their predecessors failed. Jon Kyl, the Senate’s No. 2 Republican, said the committee needs to wrap up its work by Halloween, to provide enough time for the package to be scored and voted upon. The supercommittee is starting slowly. It won’t meet again until Tuesday, when CBO chief Doug Elmendorf will explain the origin and drivers of the nation’s debt crisis. It seems a logical starting point–except that the committee’s opening statements revealed a nuanced grasp of this issue, if little else.

From there, it’s hard to discern exactly where the committee will go. Even with members on their most gracious behavior, the chasm between the two parties’ approaches to deficit-reduction remains as wide as it was during the debt debacle. Republicans believe that slashing spending and lowering taxes will grow the economy by dispelling the cloud of uncertainty enveloping job-creators. Democrats think the way to reduce the deficit is to help people find jobs, and insist that any deficit-reduction plan include a mix of spending cuts and tax hikes.

Leaders of both parties have suggested that the $1.5 trillion baseline represents a floor, not a ceiling, and several Republicans wasted little time Thursday zeroing in on familiar targets. “In order to succeed, this committee must primarily be about saving and reforming social safety net programs that are not only failing many beneficiaries but going broke at the same time,” said Representative Jeb Hensarling of Texas, one of the committee’s two co-chairs. Two of his Senate colleagues, Pat Toomey and Rob Portman, advocated for an overhaul of the tax code, which would ostensibly lower marginal rates while closing the nest of loopholes and deductions riddling the system. “Our tax code is a national embarrassment,” Toomey said. “Both parties are guilty.”

Others sounded notes of skepticism. Kyl, who served on past bipartisan working groups who came up short, argued that lawmakers should lower their sights given the truncated time frame and the political perils of the task at hand. “I think a dose of realism is called for here,” he said. “This is tedious, time-consuming work.”

If it’s not ready to reach for the machete, there are ways for the committee to meet its mandate with a scalpel. Democratic staffers on the Ways and Means Committee on Wednesday submitted a list of potential savings, including some $500 billion from Medicare through tweaks like raising the eligibility age to 67 from 65. The bipartisan task forces of months past have identified a menu of potential savings the supercommittee can mix and match from to reach its goal.

On Thursday the committee flashed lofty aspirations. “Will history record that we wrote the first chapter of America’s decline?” Hensarling asked. “We have to find not just common ground, but higher ground,” said Democratic Senator John Kerry. But the meeting also revealed the distractions and skepticism the group will have to forge through. Code Pink protesters, including a woman with a feather boa and a man with a “Daddy War Bucks” hat and a “tax the poor, coddle the rich” sign, showed up early. Midway through the meeting, a gaggle of protesters outside the room began a raucous “Jobs…Now!” chant, drowning out Congressman Dave Camp’s speech and forcing an impromptu recess until the ruckus subsided.

More importantly, the committee is under pressure from constituents and a raft of lobbyists warning against cuts in their respective sectors. Among them are transparency advocates who want the whole, messy shebang to take place under the klieg lights of television cameras. A group of Republican Senators, including Nevada’s Dean Heller and Louisiana’s David Vitter, held a preemptive press conference Thursday morning urging the supercommittee to eschew the shadowy backroom deals for which Congress is notorious. “We are opposed to inside baseball, and that’s what we’re seeing with this supercommittee,” Heller said. Vitter has introduced a bill requiring committee members to disclose campaign contributions of greater than $1,000 within 48 hours. And several committee members have come under fire for holding fundraisers over the August recess. The kerfuffle spurred some members to cancel events to avoid the appearance of impropriety, but that won’t be enough for some. And while the committee rules require meeting agendas to be set a day in advance, some deliberations will take place behind closed doors, Hensarling acknowledged. “Like any other committee of Congress, there will also be some discussions among members that will not be public,” Hensarling said.

The forced display of good will Thursday, which follows House Republican leadership’s decision to break with custom by waiting until President Obama delivers his jobs speech to Congress Thursday night before blasting it, reflects the acknowledgment that the debt battle has bruised both parties’ standing with the public. A recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll pegged Congress’ approval rating at 13%. The supercommitte will likely hit their target for self-preservation alone. But it’s foolish to expect that elusive, sweeping solutions are suddenly in reach simply because the knives were sheathed on opening day.