- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 11, 2011

The 12-member supercommittee tasked with straightening out the country’s fiscal mess is long on lawmakers who have already whiffed in recent months on chances to strike deals and short on those who have shown a readiness to make the compromises that all sides say will be needed.

Four of the members helped defeat an agreement reached in last year’s failed deficit commission, and another three were part of the group led by Vice President Joseph R. Biden that stalled in July, unable to reach a deal to raise the debt ceiling.

Known as the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, the panel’s membership was set Thursday when House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, named her three picks: Reps. James E. Clyburn of South Carolina and Xavier Becerra of California, who are both part of the party’s leadership, and Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the Budget Committee and a former head of House Democrats’ political committee.

They join the other nine members, announced this week: Democratic Sens. Patty Murray of Washington, John F. Kerry of Massachusetts and Max Baucus of Montana; Republican Sens. Jon Kyl of Arizona, Rob Portman of Ohio and Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania; and Republican Reps. Jeb Hensarling of Texas, Dave Camp of Michigan and Fred Upton of Michigan.

Of those, Mr. Becerra, Mr. Baucus, Mr. Hensarling and Mr. Camp helped defeat last year’s deficit commission proposals. Mr. Kyl, Mr. Clyburn and Mr. Van Hollen were part of the failed Biden group.

“These people must be sick of each other. They’ve been disagreeing with each other for a long time,” said Robert Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a centrist group that advocates for getting the budget in order.

In naming her picks, Mrs. Pelosi said the three House Democrats would try to steer cuts so that they don’t hurt the stimulative effects of more government spending, and she repeated her goal of trying to shield entitlement programs.

“We must achieve a ‘grand bargain’ that reduces the deficit by addressing our entire budget, while strengthening Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security,” she said.

Mr. Clyburn said he would use his time on the committee to remind fellow lawmakers that “the human side gets lost in the Washington debate about our nation’s debt and deficits.”

“In 2011, the gap continues to grow wider between those who enjoy great wealth and those who struggle to get by with little thought of ever getting ahead,” he said.

The chief obstacle to an agreement will be the lack of proven deal makers on the committee.

Left off were all the members of the “Gang of Six,” a bipartisan group that reached an informal deal last month, drawing praise from the White House for taking a “balanced” approach, though Republicans were not pleased to see the tax increases included. The gang’s proposals have not been taken up in Congress.

Mr. Bixby said some of the members of the supercommittee “could potentially be deal makers,” including Mr. Camp and Mr. Baucus, who run the House and Senate committees responsible for writing tax policy and share jurisdiction over big entitlement programs. He also pointed to Mr. Portman, who served several years as budget director for President George W. Bush in the middle of the last decade, and to Mr. Kerry, who he said could act as a senior statesman, selling his caucus on a hard-won agreement.

William Galston, co-founder of No Labels, which is pushing for Congress to move beyond partisan boundaries, said circumstances already have changed in the short time since the committee was created, and outside pressures such as S&P’s downgrade of government debt and continuing financial upheaval around the globe could act “like a splash of cold water in the face of an alcoholic.”

“To the extent that there is hope, it comes from the fact that American politicians have been very forcibly reminded that domestic political composition and partisan polarization is not the sum total of reality,” he said.

The committee is charged with coming up with $1.5 trillion in tax increases or spending cuts over the next decade. Their report is due by Thanksgiving, and Congress must act by Christmas, or else automatic cuts to defense and domestic spending will go into effect, though their impact would be delayed.

Dominating the debate is the philosophical divide. Democrats are urging tax increases, saying the government needs more money to fulfill all of the social safety-net promises it has built up through the decades. The GOP, meanwhile, says government spending accounts for a quarter of the economy and is growing and that it must be pared by at least 20 percent.

Complicating matters, many of the committee’s members voted for the policies that landed the government in its deep hole.

Seven of them voted for December’s tax-cut and spending deal that boosted the deficit by tens of billions of dollars, six of them voted for the 2001 tax cuts, another six voted for the 2003 tax cuts, seven voted for the Iraq War, and six voted for 2003’s Medicare prescription drug bill that was projected to add nearly $400 billion to the deficit over a decade.

By contrast, just four voted for Republicans’ 2005 budget reconciliation bill that cut spending by $100 billion over a decade.

But 10 of the 12 members did vote this year to cut off government support for the ethanol industry, suggesting an appetite to tackle breaks written into the tax code.

Meanwhile, a Congressional Budget Office analysis released Thursday said that cutting spending now could dent the economy in the short term, but would pay off with a stronger economy within a decade.

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