Skip to main content

Super committee can't tackle real debt problem

By William Frenzel, Special to CNN
  • William Frenzel says the super committee on debt cuts is picked and looks fine
  • He says none likely to break with party, will likely need strong consensus for vote on cuts
  • He says $1.5 trillion they're supposed to cut is paltry portion of debt U.S. faces anyway
  • Frenzel: Until both sides confront compromise on entitlements, taxes, debt problem will remain

Editor's note: William Frenzel served as a U.S. representative from Minnesota from 1971 to 1991 and was the ranking Republican on the House Budget Committee. He is co-chairman of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget and is a guest scholar in economic studies at the Brookings Institution.

(CNN) -- All 12 members of the Congress' Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction -- or, the "super committee"--have been selected. They have been analyzed to the hilt. Observers are now speculating about who is going to remain true, who is likely to "sell out," and who might engineer the grand compromise.

Actually, the parties in Congress are so well polarized that it makes little difference who has been appointed. All the members appointed so far are qualified. Most of them can be classified as "team players" who will do their best to represent their caucuses.

Don't look for a 7-5, or 8-4 vote on the super committee. It is highly unlikely that one or two members will dare to cross party lines on a final vote. It is more likely that there will be a strong consensus on the final vote, with a possible objector or two.

Besides the party polarization, acts of heroism will be discouraged because the stakes are so low. The $1.5 trillion in deficit reductions the super committee is charged with finding this fall is a small fraction of our deficits over the coming decade. If achieved, it may retard the growth of our debt-to-GDP ratio slightly, but it won't reduce it.

A super committee recommendation of a real solution, like Bowles-Simpson, is also unlikely. The target is a paltry $1.5 trillion. The most likely outcome is that the committee will make it. The second most likely outcome is that the trigger will be pulled. Either outcome will leave about three-quarters of the job undone.

Until the major drivers of deficits and debt are one the table -- entitlements -- the Congress will be playing touch football with the deficit/debt problem. Democrats protect entitlements; Republicans protect taxes. Difficult compromises are required, but the super committee, unfortunately, does not have this kind of heavy lifting in its charter.

Even assuming super committee success, the net of all this is that our president and our Congress will have spent a year at hard labor working on modest reductions, none of them aimed at the real drivers of our deficits and debt.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of William Frenzel.