The supercommittee's 'do nothing' path to success

Think the so-called supercommittee failed? Columnist Alan Balutis says you should think again.

Alan Balutis is senior director and distinguished fellow at Cisco Systems' Internet Business Solutions Group.

Years ago, I worked closely with the National Conference of State Legislatures and spent time in the state capitals where the NCSL leaders were located. One of those cities was Austin, Texas, where I had the chance to enjoy the culture, the night life, the food and a wonderful publication, Texas Monthly.

The magazine published an annual assessment of the state legislature, not unlike what Washingtonian magazine does for Congress. The Texas Monthly included the usual categories: smartest, dumbest, best and worst dressed, and so on. But it also included a category I haven’t seen anywhere else called “10 Pieces of Furniture,” which was reserved for legislators who did so little that they couldn’t even be evaluated.

Recalling that category gives me great hope after the recent failure of the badly misnamed supercommittee to reach an agreement on a deficit reduction deal after four months of meetings and partisan wrangling. The only thing the committee could agree on was a short statement issued at the group’s legislative deadline that said they had given up: “We end this process united in our belief that the nation’s fiscal crisis must be addressed.”

Although united in that belief, they failed to produce the $1.2 trillion in cuts needed to avoid sequestration — automatic cuts that will be triggered in January 2013 if there is no budget deal by then. Committee members failed to “go big” by aiming for $4 trillion in cuts, as they were encouraged to do by the White House and others. They failed to agree on a balanced package of long-term spending cuts and tax increases to begin bringing the deficit down. They failed to agree on short-term measures to boost the economy. They failed even to clarify the issues or suggest new areas of common ground that could pave the way for a deal down the road.

And now they are poised for success. How? On Jan. 1, 2013, sequestration kicks in, making $1.2 trillion in predetermined budget cuts with half coming from the Defense Department and none from Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare benefits. Those Pentagon cuts, when combined with other reductions agreed to earlier, would reduce military spending by about $1 trillion over the next decade. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has called such reductions a doomsday scenario. Of course, DOD officials and outside experts say it is just the beginning of a prolonged fight over which items to cut.

On that same date, the George W. Bush-era tax cuts also expire, producing almost $4 trillion in additional revenue. If you count reduced interest payments, some Medicare cuts and the expiration of stimulus programs, the nation’s fiscal picture will improve by about $7.1 trillion in the next 10 years, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. That is beyond “going big.” It is far more than anything the supercommittee, President Barack Obama or House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) ever considered proposing.

What is needed for this rather balanced and progressive package of budget reductions and revenue enhancements to take place? Nothing. Congress simply needs to do nothing for the next few years. With a presidential election coming and Republicans eyeing the possibility of taking control of the Senate, that seems quite doable. In fact, it’s what our government does best these days.

Call me an optimist, but I think we have them right where we want them.

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