The Super Committee: Failure at Any Cost

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Incoming! Six-hundred billion dollar cut!

It comes as no surprise that the bicameral and bipartisan super committee — that 12-person debt panel charged with finding  $1.2 trillion in deficit savings over the next 10 years — failed in its mandate.  Its members’ inability to reach a compromise has triggered an automatic $600 billion in defense cuts (set to begin in 2013).  One look at the members of the super committee sheds light on some troubling trends in Congress writ large, and perhaps partly explains its failure.

Senator Patty Murray (D-Wash.), a woman who has never served in uniform, is the chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs.  Really?  And Senator Rob Portman (R-Ohio), another non-veteran, is a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs.  Really?  Only one member of the super committee, Senator John Kerry (D-Massachusetts), is a veteran, and yet the actions, or inactions, of this group will have far-reaching consequences for the Department of Defense — and therefore our national security.

Although not on the debt panel, another Congressional committee chairman head-scratcher is that of Congressman Buck McKeon (R-California).  Although not a veteran, he is the Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.  How can this be?

Maybe the reason more veterans weren’t on the committee was an honest mistake by congressional leadership, or perhaps it was merely because veterans are also underrepresented in Congress overall.  Either way, it’s a sad day when a dozen lawmakers let politics dictate inaction, causing $600 billion in across-the-board spending cuts to an institution most of them have never served and therefore can’t possibly fully understand.

Perhaps to the committee members that have never served, $600 billion in defense cuts is just a number; just a damning statistic to use as leverage in each side’s game of partisan chicken.  To our service members, however, $600 billion in cuts means real, tangible, and indiscriminate reductions across the entire military spending spectrum:  medical benefits; retirement benefits; the size of ground forces; new weapons purchases; and our nuclear arsenal to name a few.  For those who wear the uniform, the debt panel represents not just a partisan debate, but a bellwether for the very future of the military.

How can a group of legislators with virtually zero national security credentials be expected to govern wisely when it comes to making national defense-related budget decisions?  They can’t.

Partisan rhetoric has elevated to near unbearable heights, and agreement between Democrats and Republicans has become as elusive as sound judgment on Capital Hill.  Whether it’s as insignificant as the date of a presidential speech or as dire as the fiscal health of our nation, our politicians have apparent disdain for working with one another, regardless of the consequences.  This reciprocal scorn is matched only by the American public’s contempt for Washington: Congress’s approval rating is 9%, an all time low.

So why did the super committee let us down?  How was this vitally important initiative such an epic failure? Four factors, it seems, rendered the committee dead on arrival:  a lack of looming consequences for the committee members; a refusal to acknowledge the steps that must be taken to fix our ballooning debt; a committee conflicted between what’s right for the country and what’s important for their respective party; and a shocking lack of national security credentials amongst the committee members.

The lack of consequences was even acknowledged by a super committee member.  According to Senator Rob Portman, the fact that the automatic cuts resulting from the committee’s failure wouldn’t happen until 2013 was a key barrier to a deal.  “I think it made it easier to avoid making some of the tougher decisions.”  Talk about kicking the can down the road.

Teddy Roosevelt said it best:  “In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing.  The worst thing you can do is nothing.”  Our nation, for the most part, is sadly acceptant of the broken nature of our Congress.  Nothing is the new norm in Washington.

Jena McGregor, in the Washington Post’s “Post Leadership” series, attributes the failure of the debt committee to the lack of personal consequences for its 12 members.  “The joint commission failed because the biggest consequences for these 12 people’s careers came not if they didn’t strike a deal, but if they angered their party’s leadership,” she said. “The super committee’s collapse is not just a consequential failure, but a failure of consequences, too.”  Ultimately, the super committee was willing to fail, at any cost, to stay loyal to party lines.

Consider the following statistics about taxes and entitlements (Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid), the two major sticking points in the debt debate.  Nearly half of US households pay no federal income taxes at all.  This point alone is evidence of the widespread lack of shared sacrifice while our nation is at war.  Despite the fact that federal tax receipts (in inflation-adjusted dollars) have more than tripled since 1965, our government is $15 trillion in debt and running massive deficits year-to-year.  Put simply, we have a government-spending problem.

Net interest spending on our national debt is projected to more than triple over the next decade.  Like a consumer stuck in an endless cycle of credit card debt, our government will continue to use more and more of its tax revenues to merely pay the interest on our debt.  In 2010 alone, the US government paid $414 billion of interest expense (compared with total spending of $667 billion for the Department of Defense; $173 billion for the Department of Labor; $129 billion for the Department of Agriculture; $108 billion for the Department of Veterans Affairs; and $93 billion for the Department of Education).

To put entitlement spending into perspective, in 2011 it was $2.2 trillion, compared to $159 billion for the Global War on Terrorism (i.e. 7% of entitlements) and $29 billion in foreign aid (or 1% of entitlements).  Entitlement spending is expected to double by 2050, at which point it will consume 100% of the government’s tax revenues.  Consider this last point carefully in light of the super committee’s failure:  even eliminating the entire defense budget (forever) would not solve our spending problems, because entitlements will, by themselves, continue to drive our deficits to unmanageable levels.

Without entitlement reform, our fiscal health cannot be restored.  Any politician that tries to argue otherwise is at best disillusioned, at worst willfully ignorant to the hard choices that remain before us.

At a time when our nation needs leadership, not partisan politics, we find that despite promises of progress by officials on both sides of the aisle throughout the super committee’s deliberation, the entire super committee did not meet together as a group behind closed doors to negotiate the terms of a deal after October 31st, which was more than three weeks before the deadline.  Instead, they wrote, sent, and rejected proposal after proposal in a game of “shuttle diplomacy,” each side unwilling to budge on the same issues they’ve been sparring over for months:  taxes and entitlements.

Not sitting down as a group to hash out the details of their plan(s) is inexcusable.  Considering the dire circumstances that brought about its creation in the first place, the super committee should have been sequestered, just like a jury during a trial, to force them into making the hard decisions they were appointed to make.  A sequestration (not to be confused with the automatic defense cuts that resulted from the super committee’s failure) could have lessened interference from lobbyists and from each party’s leadership, and would have truly empowered the committee to tackle the problems at hand while limiting external influence.

We have substituted digital communication for the tried and true method of negotiating while looking your opponent in the eyes.  The most extreme partisan rhetoric is generally broadcast from the comfort of one’s office via email or phone, or behind the bully pulpit.  It’s only when the cameras stop rolling and the microphones are silenced that real progress can emerge.  There’s no substitute for face-to-face encounters — they generally force us to act like real and empathetic human beings rather than partisan bullhorns.

Our nation has, unfortunately, become accustomed to this incessant partisan squabble.  This “all or nothing” negotiating tactic is not new; we watched it unfold late this summer as our elected officials failed to make the tough decisions required of them by the very seats they fill and the oaths of office to which they swore.

Perhaps our leadership would be well served to learn an important lesson in decision-making from General Patton:  “A good plan today is better than a perfect plan tomorrow.”  In other words, instead of holding out (for the perfect plan) and mandating an all-or-nothing, take-it-or-leave-it strategy, each party should instead realize that compromising on a deal to fix our fiscal woes (thereby enacting a good plan today), would earn the trust and support of the citizens they were elected to lead.  Compromise is not a dirty word.

Republicans are scared to incite their base by even considering raising taxes, and Democrats won’t consider touching the burgeoning entitlement programs for fear of backlash from the unions and the rest of their base.  Meanwhile, our country waits in the shadows, weary from the mindless gridlock and wanting answers.  To borrow a quote from Woody Harrelson in White Men Can’t Jump, I’m afraid our Congressional leadership “would rather look good (to their base) and lose (the negotiation) than look bad and win.”

Leon Panetta said it best when he bluntly told an audience at Electric Boat, a submarine plant in Groton, Conn.:  “I urge the committee: suck it up.  Do what’s right for the country.  That’s why we elect people:  to govern, not to just survive in office.”  Panetta’s right.  We need our leaders to step up, show some intestinal fortitude, and do what needs to be done to get our financial house back in order.  What we need is conviction, not the cowardice of hiding behind party rhetoric.

So how do we, as a population seemingly alienated by those in the lurch of power in Washington, hold the super committee accountable for their failure?  Can we whine about it?  Sure.  Can we write critically about them?  Absolutely.   But words, both spoken and written, never seem to stick to the politicians to which they are aimed.  Instead, the most effective and tangible weapon we, as Americans, wield is at the ballot box with a vote.  With all of its imperfections, our system of democracy is the least-worst form of government.  And it is this democratic system that gives Americans the power of changing their country, and the representatives elected to lead it, one vote at a time.  We don’t know how Republicans will fare versus Democrats in 2012.  All we know is that come election time, “incumbent” will be a dirty word.

Bingham Jamison served two combat tours as a Marine Corps officer in Iraq. He earned his Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) designation after leaving active duty, and has worked combating terrorism financing and managing investments for non-profit endowments and foundations. A captain in the Marine Ready Reserves, he lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, with his wife and two children.