Pick of the Week: Vor und hinter den Kulissen des Supercommittee

Der dieswöchige Pick of the Week ist zweiteilig: Einerseits ein NPR-Bericht von heute, Montag, Morgen, der auf einer sachlich-inhaltlichen Ebene vom Scheitern des sogenannten Supercommittee’s berichtet, andererseits ein Artikel aus dem POLITICO Playbook von Sonntag, der aus einer Gerüchte-hinter-den-Kulissen-Perspektive berichtet. Das Supercommittee ist jener Ausschuss, der nach der Schuldendeckelkrise im Sommer geformt wurde, um die Staatsschulden um 1,5 Billionen Dollar über 10 Jahre zu reduzieren. Es besteht aus 6 DemokratInnen und 6 RepublikanerInnen, je drei aus dem House und drei aus dem Senat. Sollten die 12 PolitikerInnen zu keiner Einigung kommen, würden automatisch und relativ wahllos 1,2 Billionen Dollar in Militärausgaben und Sozialprogrammen gekürzt werden, das allerdings erst 2013, also nach der nächsten Wahl. Heute, Montag, sieht es so aus, als würde das Kommittee zu keiner Einigung kommen.

Zwar haben beide Artikel nicht direkt mit der Kampagne zu tun, sehr wohl aber indirekt: Schulden, die Dysfunktionalität des politischen Systems, die Blockadepolitik der RepublikanerInnen, all das wird in den nächsten 12 Monaten diskutiert und Lösungen versprochen werden. Von beiden Seiten wurde das Supercommittee zur politischen Taktiererei eingesetzt: RepublikanerInnen wollen dem Präsidenten keinen Erfolg gönnen und ihm die schlechte wirtschaftliche Lage “umhängen”; Präsident Obama will den republikanisch dominierten Kongress der letzten zwei Jahre als “Do Nothing Congress” framen.

Die 12 Abgeordneten haben noch bis heute Abend Zeit, zu einer Einigung zu kommen – zwar ist die offizielle Deadline Mittwoch, der Tag vor Thanksgiving, doch Gesetzesvorschhläge müssen 48 Stunden vorher veröffentlicht werden.

Wer zu faul ist, das alles zu lesen, dem/der sei die NYT “Was bisher geschah” Grafik empfohlen

NPR (Montag): For Debt Committee, No Final-Hour Deal Apparent

by Tamara Keith

Monday is the last day the congressional supercommittee can reach a deficit-reduction deal and still make its Wednesday deadline. The legislation has to be publicly available for 48 hours before a vote, and the clock is ticking. But instead of announcing an agreement, the committee is widely expected to admit it has failed.

The supercommittee was created with the hope that 12 members of congress, six democrats and six republicans, sitting together in a room could accomplish what so many others could not. The goal was $1.2 trillion in deficit reductions over a decade, but it appears that the supercommittee wasn’t so super after all.

Its kryptonite: fundamental differences between the two parties over taxes and entitlements, though mostly it was about taxes.

“There is one sticking divide, and that is the issue of what I called shared sacrifice,” committee co-chairwoman Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said on CNN’s State of the Union Sunday.

That is, if programs like Medicare and Medicaid are going to be on the table, Democrats on the committee believe the Bush-era tax cuts for the highest income earners should be allowed to expire.

“The wealthiest of Americans — those who earn over a million dollars every year — have to share, too,” Murray said. “And that line in the sand, we haven’t seen any Republicans willing to cross yet.”

Offers Made

About a week and a half ago, the Republican side did offer $300 billion in increased revenue, but only if the Bush-era tax cuts were made permanent, with upper-income tax rates actually going down even further. Democrats weren’t willing to accept the rate cut.

Meanwhile, Republicans say Democrats weren’t willing to give enough on reforms to entitlement programs like Medicare and Medicaid.

“Nothing new came out of this. From the Democratic side, it was the same thing: raise taxes, pass the president’s jobs bill, no entitlement reform,” Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., said on NBC’s Meet the Press. “On the Republican side, you had the one true breakthrough, and that was this new concept of tax reform, which can generate revenue.”

Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts was also on NBC. He said Democrats offered “huge, hard, tough, horrible” reductions in programs they hold dear.

“We put every single sacred cow on the table,” Kerry said. “They know that they could have had many things that a lot of us hate to even talk about publicly.”

But in exchange, Democrats wanted tax changes the Republicans weren’t willing to give.

A Missed Opportunity

“Each side was prepared to offer more if they thought the other side was operating in good faith,” said Alice Rivlin, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who served as budget director for President Clinton.

Rivlin has served on two bipartisan commissions that came up with deficit-reduction plans, and she advised the supercommittee. She calls the apparent failure of the committee a disappointment and a missed opportunity.

“Each side distrusted the other. The Democrats were afraid to offer serious entitlement cuts because they thought the Republicans will just take that and not give any revenues,” she said. “The Republicans said if we offer serious revenues, the Democrats will just take that and they’re not serious about the entitlement cuts.”

So members of the supercommittee spent Sunday morning positioning themselves to make the other guy look bad, instead of putting the finishing touches on a grand deficit-reduction deal — and it all came back to taxes.

“It’s not about assigning blame, but we are unaware of any Democratic offer that didn’t include at least a trillion-dollar tax increase on the American economy,” Texas Republican Rep. Jeb Hensarling said on Fox News Sunday.

Democrat Patty Murray blamed a Republican anti-tax pledge to the group Americans for Tax Reform.

“As long as we have some Republican lawmakers who feel more enthralled with a pledge they took to a Republican lobbyist than they do to a pledge to the country to solve the problems, then this is going to be hard to do,” she said.

Everyone went into this knowing that bridging the partisan divide was going to be hard. It appears, with less than a year until the election, it was just too hard, even for a supercommittee. [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

POLITICO, Playbook (Sonntag):

BACKSTAGE – HOW THE SUPERCOMMITTEE FLUNKED : The supercommittee last met Nov. 1 – three weeks ago! It was a public hearing featuring a history lesson, “Overview of Previous Debt Proposals,” with Alan Simpson, Erskine Bowles, Pete Domenici and Alice Rivlin. The last PRIVATE meeting was Oct. 26. You might as well stop reading right there: The 12 members (6 House, 6 Senate; 6 R, 6 D) were never going to strike a bargain, grand or otherwise, if they weren’t talking to each other. Yes, we get that real deal-making occurs in small groups. But there never WAS a functioning supercommittee: There was Republican posturing and Democratic posturing, with some side conversations across the aisle.

Playbook was a superoptimist: We thought that human factors would prod ambitious members to crack the code, and that the committee would take on its own ecology, regardless of pressures from above or below. But we were punk’d: The supercommittee – one of the most fascinating government experiments of this generation — never existed as a dynamic political organism.

The official deadline for action by the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction is Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving. The real deadline is Monday night, since any plan has to be posted for 48 hours before it’s voted on. So conversations this weekend revolved around how to shut this turkey down. Aides expect some “Hail Mary” offers on Sunday, and there’s something on the stove that could be inoffensive to both sides. But the committee may not even have a fig-leaf agreement to announce. Total, embarrassing failure. The markets and the country will hate it.

The most likely scenario: The co-chairs, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), on Monday will issue a short joint statement with the basic message: “This marriage is over.” Other possibilities are to hold a short going-out-of-business hearing, or to vote down a Republican proposal and a Democratic proposal. But one aide says: “Few, if any, one either side, want a final, ugly food fight … The chairs are working to figure out how to put the appropriate period on the sentence and do so in the most dignified manner possible. … [Don't expect] a showdown of dueling voters and a ton of fingerpointing.”

Both sides recognize that the optics are disastrous. The Dem. aide continued: “They don’t feel the need to burn the place down as they turn off the lights.”

The concept of the supercommittee, as POLITICO’s Jake Sherman articulated in an email: “[I]f you put 12 serious members in a room, no distractions, easy way through the Senate [direct path for bill], they’d be able to get something.” BUT THAT NEVER HAPPENED: The 12 members never had specific, hot-box, come-to-Jesus discussions. It was all white noise. Neither side was willing to jump first, and the two didn’t have the capacity to jump together.

One Democrat said Murray “had a really great relationship with Hensarling. They had a very productive relationship — well, I guess, not ‘productive’ in the sense of producing a deal at the end. … [Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John] Kerry [D-Mass.] was his diplomatic self: very active in trying to keep the channels of communication open and feeling the sides out.”

A senator told us the supercommittee should have gotten serious sooner – made some tough choices on parameters at the beginning, then figured out how to get there. But that implies committee members got serious at the end. Instead, they were sniping about what was an “offer” and what was a “conversation.” When one side claimed a breakthrough, the opposition emailed reporters with the subject line: “<Yawn> Old News Ain’t News.”

The supercommittee even fooled itself. “Both sides at various times, after ad hoc conversations, felt like we were making progress in the evening,” recalled a GOP participant, “before coming back in the morning and finding, ‘We can’t actually do that.’” A Democratic participant: “It became clear on our end that this all came down to [insistence on extending] the Bush tax cuts for Republicans, and that was the immovable object at the end of the day.”

How bad was the marriage? Listen to top Republican aide : “You had this dynamic emerge where all six of our guys were pretty closely in sync — a little bit because they’re sort of ideologically similar and a little bit because, by design, we had them meeting, like, two or three times a day — literally every day; if not physically meeting, at least doing a conference call. So, these guys were in constant communication. Not that anyone was looking to go rogue, but if anybody wanted to go rogue, there was no chance for that to happen, because you couldn’t hide from the rest of the group. So, they were pretty tightly coordinated. If they had any kind of disagreements, they kept internal, they worked it out, and then they moved ahead.

“On the other side, [Rep. Chris] Van Hollen [D-Md.)] actually looked like he was going to participate. But about three or four weeks ago, he came to the conclusion that we weren’t going to get anywhere, and started throwing cold water on everyone else’s ideas. You had Kerry and [Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max] Baucus [D-Mont.], who seemed to be the only two who were sort of really interested in seeing if there was a way to cut a deal. Baucus would say things that made you think, ‘OK, we can work with this guy.’ And then he would go back to his office and either talk to somebody, or get yanked back, and then he would come back and would start from ground zero again.

“Kerry’s M.O. in this whole thing was basically, ‘I’m the smartest guy in the room. I’m so much smarter than you that I will, through sheer force of intellect, be able to convince you to accept something that you already said “no” to.’ He would try to drudge up old ideas that had already been rejected: ‘If you will just let me talk to you for an hour, you will see the wisdom of my way.’ … Baucus clearly tried, and if Baucus had been willing to be the only one to vote ['yes'], we could have gotten a deal. But he was never willing to break from the rest of his group. … [Kerry] was not going to be the seventh vote. It’s not even clear to me that if Baucus and Kerry had jointly made an agreement, that the two of them would have done it, either. I think they either wanted Murray, or they wanted a House Democrat.”

Democrats have almost the same beefs, and even express them similarly. A top Dem. aide : “The Democrats on the committee didn’t feel like they had a willing partner in negotiations because revenue was never a serious component of discussion. … [W]e’ve seen offers, and none of those offers are legitimate or are plans that would require the wealthiest Americans to sacrifice along with everybody else. … Democrats came into this in the spirit of, ‘We can make some hard choices around entitlements. We can make some painful decisions and we can take some guff from the left.’ And I think that throughout the process, they did that. If you look at MoveOn and AARP and even the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, we took a lot of hits from the left on the entitlement reforms that we put forward .”

One Democrat said the supercommittee structure “was a kind of diffuse, horizontal … You had a lot of folks trying to take initiative and be the one to get the deal done.”

Republicans usually met in the Cannon House Office Building, where Hensarling has his office as chair of the House Republican Conference. The GOP prepared elaborate plans: not just how much the government could make from auctioning spectrum, but what part would go on the block, and what part would be reserved for public safety. Hensarling repeatedly told the GOP members: “I’m an old Boy Scout. I like to be prepared.”

Democrats usually met in S-116, in one of Kerry’s Foreign Relations conference rooms. Murray – the Democratic chair, who also chairs the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee – was described by one participant as “the police … the voice of our base.” Another Democrat put it more gently: “She is really influenced by the constituents that she represents. Throughout this process, she had these conversations with people about, ‘My Social Security is on the line.’ So she really felt a very heavy burden to do something, but to do something in a way that was going to be fair to the people that she’s made a career out of representing. She made some really difficult choices, and she felt like she did enough that if Republicans reciprocated, there was an opportunity for a deal. … She’s one of those people who believes that while it certainly seems like Washington is broken, it has to work.”

Two supercommittee members – Reps. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) and Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.) — never really checked into the conversation, according to numerous participants on both sides. A Democrat explained: “There’s a basic threshold for our guys that any deal has to be better than what would happen with no deal. There were some folks who never really saw us get close to [that] threshold.”

Through all this, the White House was mostly hands-off. One Democrat said President Obama gave the committee “a lot of autonomy.” Another Democrat: “It was kind of the opposite of the debt ceiling. Instead of really haggling, inserting himself into the actual haggling back-and-forth, he intervened kind of surgically to draw clear lines at a couple points that we felt put us in a good negotiating position.”

Speaker John Boehner, elliptically in public and explicitly in private, had given Republicans top cover to raise revenues in return for tax reform. “This has always been a question of scale,” a top GOP aide explained. “If they were willing to go a little further on entitlements, we’d see what we can do on revenues. That was the way it would have to work. What we found was, they needed a trillion-plus in revenues, and weren’t willing to do anywhere near that on entitlements.”

Republicans pat themselves on the back for a plan – floated by supercommittee member Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), a former president of the Club for Growth – that would, in the GOP euphemism, “lead to additional revenues.” As one aide recalled: “We thought we had found the sweet spot: The right was pissed, but not too pissed. The mainstream media was giving us credit for getting out of our comfort zone.” At Tuesday’s regular meeting of House Republicans, Hensarling gave a detailed description of the plan, and got applause.

But Democrats sensed the Republicans were getting pushback, either from leaders or rank and file. A Dem. aide: “What you saw was over the course of last weekend was members getting somewhat close to a deal. [There were] empty Senate office buildings, empty House buildings, members meeting casually to talk about this. … Once the House came back into town, the negotiating stance of those House Republicans radically changed. … At the end of the day, it was clear that there was nothing that they could say ‘yes’ to.”

A Democratic aide had this eulogy for the supercommittee: “The worm has turned a little bit. The national conversation now is about income inequality and about jobs, and it’s not really about cutting the size of government anymore or cutting spending. 2010 gave one answer to that question. But 2012 will give another, and we’ve got to see what it is.”

A Republican’s obit: “With this new crop of Democrats in the Senate, they’re big into changing the rules [by creating a supercommittee]. I think this shows us that that’s not it. You had a shot here to do something big, and to do it in a way that you would never get a chance to do again.”

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