Next Stop: Train Wreck

And so here we are, at the next stage of this comic opera/disaster movie/smash-and-grab robbery known as the “debt-limit crisis.” Leadership in both the House and Senate have tapped the twelve members who will make up the so-called “Super-Committee,” which will be responsible for coming up with a plan to cobble together $1.2 trillion in spending cuts by Thanksgiving.

It is a motley crew, to be sure.

The Republican side of the equation is comprised of Senators Rob Portman (Ohio), Jon Kyl, (Arizona), and Patrick Toomey (Pennsylvania), along with Representatives Fred Upton (Michigan), Jeb Hensarling (Texas) and Dave Camp (Pennsylvania). To a man – and note well that Republican leadership selected a racially and sexually homogenized crew for this – they are hard-liners who will likely not budge when it comes to tax revenues. Kyl is a boon companion of GOP Senator Mitch McConnell, Toomey was once president of the far-right group Club for Growth, and Portman used to be budget director for none other than George W. Bush. Each and every one of these men has taken Grover Norquist's anti-tax pledge, which bodes very ill for any revenue enhancements making it into the deal.

The Democratic side of things is comprised of Senators John Kerry (Massachusetts), Patty Murray (Washington), and Max Baucus (Montana), along with Representatives Xavier Becerra (California), Chris Van Hollen (Maryland), and James Clyburn (South Carolina). Progressives will probably be able to live with the chosen House members, but the Senators picked by Harry Reid have given rise to a great degree of consternation on the left. Baucus, in particular, caused a chorus of groans from progressive circles, but ironically enough, it may very well be Murray and Kerry that progressives have the most to worry about. Ari Berman of The Nation explains:

At first glance, Kerry and Murray have been reliably liberal votes within the Democratic caucus, while Baucus is viewed with grave suspicion by progressive Democrats. He's been dubbed “K Street's Favorite Democrat” by yours truly, enabled much of the Bush administration's agenda, and notoriously bungled the handling of the healthcare reform, watering down the bill and stalling the process in favor of GOP votes that never materialized. More than anyone else, Baucus is responsible for the continued unpopularity of the healthcare bill today.

Yet, paradoxically, Kerry and Murray could be more problematic than Baucus on the super-committee. Both Kerry and Murray signed a letter in March calling for a “grand bargain”deal, modeled after the Bowles-Simpson Commission, that would include “discretionary spending cuts, entitlement changes and tax reform.” Kerry has continued to advocate for such a grand bargain, most recently on Meet the Press, and both he and Murray represent states with major defense interests, which makes it unlikely they'll vote to significantly curb defense spending. As chair of the DSCC, Murray is also responsible for raising buckets of money from corporate America and embarrassingly solicited campaign cash in June from the Koch brothers.

Baucus, on the other hand, voted against the Bowles-Simpson plan, saying “we cannot cut the deficit at the expense of veterans, seniors, ranchers, farmers and hard-working families.” Specifically, Baucus said he opposed the commission's recommendations to turn Medicare into a voucher program, raise the retirement age of Social Security and cut healthcare benefits for veterans. It's hard to believe, but today Baucus might be to the left of Kerry and Murray on economic policy.


This whole thing is a farce, a train wreck waiting to happen. Given the composition of this “super-committee,” only a few possible outcomes are foreseeable, none of them any good. The best-case scenario will have this group bang out significant cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, along with some revenues raised either through new taxes (highly unlikely) or the closing of tax loopholes (only slightly more likely). Knowing what we know about these people, about GOP tactics, and about the recent shoddy history of Democratic fealty to the New Deal, a more likely outcome will involve GOP hostage-taking on the issue of taxes, followed by a capitulation by Democrats on deeper cuts to the social safety net.

If no deal can be struck, the recently-passed debt limit “deal” will cause immediate, massive across-the-board cuts to everything from Medicare to defense spending, something these people will hopefully try to avoid. If history is any guide, the GOP members of this “committee” will hold fast to their no-taxes pledge, and drive the whole process to the edge of ruin, full in the knowledge that they will only need one Democratic vote to get what they want.

Put this whole mess up on the big board at the MGM Grand in Vegas, and the line would probably be 50-1 that working people, sick people and the elderly are, once again, about to take it on the chin. Perhaps more galling than the seemingly evident outcome of this farce is the fact that the whole process flies in the face of Constitutional law. Nowhere in that document does it give Congress the power to supercede the established process of legislating through full committees and sub-committees, and after all is said and done, the whole thing could wind up being thrown out by the courts if a legal challenge is brought against the “super-committee's” final conclusions.

Nothing good will come of this, I fear. A great deal of bad, however, almost certainly will.