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Analysis: Super committee reflects our own super failure

By Alan Silverleib, CNN
updated 2:16 PM EST, Tue November 22, 2011
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Failure of "super committee" isn't surprising given Congress' track record, writer says
  • The public -- reluctant to make tough choices -- also shares the blame, he says
  • Closing popular but costly tax loopholes is extremely tough to do politically
  • Democrats and Republicans both likely to lose politically from super committee's failure

Washington (CNN) -- So the "super committee" failed. Can you honestly say you were expecting a different outcome?

The inability of an evenly split panel of Capitol Hill Democrats and Republicans to agree on $1.2 trillion in savings is about as surprising as January snow in Fairbanks, Alaska. Elected officials in Washington can't even pass a budget anymore, much less agree on politically tough choices about taxes and spending.

"The failure of the super committee is not just a failure of 12 members of Congress, who I believe genuinely tried to cut a deal but were rebuffed by their party leaders. It is a failure of political leadership on both sides of the partisan aisle," said Brown University political scientist Wendy Schiller.

"Both parties chose their own electoral livelihoods over the good of the country, and it is outright shameful. ... This might be the most self-serving, mediocre and uncaring set of legislators in Congress in the last 50 years."

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But if you're ready to hand our dysfunctional Congress a one-way ticket to political oblivion, don't forget to leave room on the bus for the American public. Americans voted them into office, and polls show they're pretty much doing what Americans want.

Yet in the failure of the moment, there may be an opening for Barack Obama to show new presidential leadership, Schiller noted.

Ask most budget analysts for the cause of America's ballooning debt -- $15 trillion and counting -- and they'll note the toxic combination of skyrocketing entitlement costs, defense spending that dwarfs that of any other nation on the planet and the Bush-era tax cuts.

To close the gap, Democrats generally push tax increases, and Republicans argue for spending cuts. The public, meanwhile, doesn't seem wild about virtually anything.

While six in 10 Americans say they embrace "major cuts" to spending programs, in reality people flinch when it comes to reductions in the largest, most popular programs. Fifty-seven percent of Americans oppose major changes to Medicare and Social Security, while 60% oppose major cuts in Pentagon spending, according to a November 18-20 CNN/ORC International Poll.

Nearly 90% of Americans oppose higher taxes on the middle class, the poll shows.

"Polls have indicated that Americans favor cuts in small programs like foreign aid that make up a tiny fraction of the overall federal budget, but they oppose changes to the big-ticket items like Social Security or the military," said Keating Holland, CNN polling director. "That's been true for decades. What's new are the external pressures to reduce the federal deficit, but it's unclear that the public feels the same urgency that the financial markets do."

The one idea that wins solid majority support from the electorate is higher taxes on wealthier Americans and businesses. Roughly two in three Americans back the idea, according to the survey.

Poll: Americans are split like debt panel

Ending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest would generate an estimated $800 billion, two-thirds of the super committee's minimum goal. Democrats note that Bush himself argued for tax cuts in 2001 because there was a budget surplus at the time.

"The people of America have been overcharged, and, on their behalf, I'm here asking for a refund," Bush told Congress at the time.

But over the last couple of decades, tax increases on the rich -- "job creators" in GOP lingo -- have become politically radioactive to most congressional Republicans. When super committee member Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pennsylvania, bucked the trend by proposing the elimination of $250 billion in tax deductions, 72 House Republicans signed a letter declaring their opposition to any deal including tax increases.

Grover Norquist: Democrats are lying

Not surprisingly, the Republican presidential candidates are firmly in tune with their base. Asked at an August debate if they could support a deal including $10 in spending cuts for every $1 in tax increases, everyone said no.

Closing tax loopholes and simplifying the tax code is increasingly a focal point in Washington. But here's the problem: Everybody loves the most expensive loopholes.

One of the biggest of all is tax-free, employer-provided health care benefits. They'll cost the federal government about $650 billion between 2010 and 2014, according to the head of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

How about shielding certain pension contributions and earnings from Uncle Sam? Roughly $600 billion over the same five years.

And America's sacrosanct home mortgage interest deduction? That will run about $500 billion.

Close all three of these loopholes and you get more than $1.7 trillion in new revenue over five years -- well in excess of the super committee's goal of $1.2 trillion over a decade. But good luck pushing for that kind of change. Obama took his 2008 Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, to the political cleaners for backing an end to the employer health care loophole.

And what about Obama's call to close a tax loophole for corporate jet owners? Republicans finally agreed to it as part of a last-ditch offer to the super committee. Unfortunately, the measure is only worth $3 billion over 10 years -- a mere drop in the deficit reduction bucket.

Super committee: What's next

Meanwhile, the administration remains exceedingly cautious about embracing entitlement reform. Obama notably declined to back the recommendations of his Bowles-Simpson deficit reduction commission, which pushed for controversial changes to programs such as Medicare and Medicaid.

Politically, does either party stand to gain from the super committee fiasco? Some Republicans accuse Obama of rooting for failure to reinforce the administration's narrative that it's impossible to work with extremist Republicans. Some Democrats say Republicans are trying to wash their hands of any responsibility for the economy and Washington's dysfunction in the run-up to 2012.

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Schiller says Obama does have "an opening to show presidential leadership" by presenting a new plan of his own.

"He could take both parts of what was deemed acceptable in theory to committee members and present Congress with that package in January," she said. "It comes with risk, but it sets him up as dominating the budget agenda for the year, and insulates him from charges of failure to lead."

But the most likely outcome, she stressed, is that both sides will lose.

"Congress underestimates the American people if they think they can get away with doing nothing and come out looking good. The only people who will react well to this might be senior citizens and hard-core members of the tea party," she said. But "you can't win an election on either side with just those constituent groups."

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