Two days before its Nov. 23 deadline, the 12-member Super Committee announced it was unable to overcome gridlock in its efforts to turn in a $1.2-trillion deficit-cutting plan. The bipartisan panel of 12 legislators was formed this summer as part of the deal to raise the debt ceiling. But since they can’t reach an agreement, $1.2 trillion in automatic cuts are set to kick in beginning in 2013 — half of it in defense spending. Wendy Schiller spoke with Deborah Baum about the Super Committee’s work, what is to blame for its failure, and any glimmers of hope this process has given the American public.
The Super Committee has announced that there is to be no deal. What happened?
The members of the committee had enough experience, expertise, and incentive to come up with a deal, but the problem they all faced was from their own party caucuses, specifically around the issues of taxes from Republicans and Medicare from Democrats. In the end, party pressures killed the deal. This is an example of how infected Congress is now with partisanship.
The committee has failed, but it doesn’t mean Congress has failed. It means in the next month, Congress could come up with something. But these long-term, 10-year deficit reduction packages are so subject to change anyway, that I don’t think American voters should worry about not getting it done in the next decade. I think they should worry about it not getting it done over the next year. We have pressures on the budget that continue to drive it upward and we have to find a way to stop those pressures — and we have to start now. If we wait, the pressures get bigger and bigger. That’s why something has to get done now.
What are the stakes for President Obama?
Obama has a leadership opportunity here. As part of his budget next year or in his State of the Union Address, he can set the agenda and say to Congress, “This is what I would sign, this is what I’m willing to do.” He could show the kind of leadership that might put enough pressure on Congress to get something done. There would be an electoral risk to that, and history has not been kind to a president who has gone out on a limb on this, but I still see it as a possibility, because it would give him insulation on charges that he hasn’t done enough on leadership.
What does the situation say about Congress?
Congress cannot function anymore. I have always been a big champion of Congress, I’ve always believed in it. But I believe Congress now is an outdated, antiquated institution that absolutely has to be changed from the outside by constitutional amendment.
What changes do you suggest?
I think we need three-year terms for the House of Representatives, without question. It would give members of the House time to learn how to govern, insulate them a bit from the direct electoral pressures they face now, and allow for at least a year of governing. In the Senate, you have to balance the representation across states more than it is now. We can’t have two senators from Montana and two from California. I think you have to make some adjustments for certain states. The last thing: Take the redistricting process out of the hands of the state legislature and put it in the hands of courts. ...
The Founders never envisioned a government of this size and they never would have approved it. It’s too difficult to hold these elected officials accountable, and this budget deal is a perfect example. They’re all reelected before the actual pain kicks in. I’ve never seen such a violation of accountability in Congress before.
Back to the budget talks: What will the public perception be now that there’s no deal?
Congress’ approval rating is 9 percent and it’s conceivable that it could go into negative digits. ... Sooner or later, the American public will wake up and say the system they have is broken. We did this in 1913 when we adopted direct election of senators and we changed the Constitution. When FDR was in office too long, we changed the Constitution. I don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility that the American public, over time, rethinks the entire structure of Congress and changes the Constitution. I think it will change. The question is when. You can’t have our fundamental federal legislature unable to function. It simply won’t work.
Is there any glimmer of hope from this process?
The glimmer of hope rests with the fact that you have longtime legislators with a vast range of ideologies and from lots of different states who came into a room and recognized that there were things they could agree on. There's a glimmer of hope that there are at least some core people who believe that we’ve got to do something.