Supercommittee Failure Confirms What Most Americans Believe About Congress

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The way the Supercommittee was set up to fail demonstrates why public disgust with Congress is rightfully at a high point

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The failure of the Supercommittee, and by extension Congress, to come to any agreement about how to deal with the nation's fiscal problems came as no surprise to most of the American people who have pretty much lost faith in Congress' ability to do its job.

A Quinnipiac poll released Monday found that by a 45 point margin Americans expected the Supercommittee to fail. Only a quarter of those questioned thought there was a chance Congress would reach an agreement.

It turns out that the public is pretty smart. People have been disappointed so often by Congress they don't really expect much.

Although congressional leaders prattled endlessly about failure not being an option, they set up the Supercommittee to fail. Driven by partisan division, political posturing and a win at all costs mentality, Republican and Democratic leaders selected members for the committee who had little record of working across the aisle. They didn't go with Sens. Mark Warner, Democrat of Virginia, and Saxby Chambliss, Republican of Georgia, who led the bi-partisan Gang of Six effort.

Instead, they picked people like Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, who chairs the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and strongly anti-tax House Republicans like Jeb Hensarling of Texas and Dave Camp of Michigan, who both served on the president's debt commission and voted against its proposal.

It was an incredible missed opportunity to put our fiscal house in order. The 12-member Supercommittee was empowered to make cuts to any part of the budget or recommend any tax or entitlement changes. And if its members had come up with a deal, the House and Senate would have been required to vote on it without making changes.

To quote political sage and comedian Jon Stewart, "You know Congress, this is why people don't like you...Is there anything that these folks can actually get done?"

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg was even more scathing in his criticism, calling the Supercommittee's failure a "damning indictment of Washington's inability to govern this country."

The public disgust with Congress is reflected in recent Gallup polls which have tracked Congressional job approval at 13 percent for the past two months, tying an all-time Gallup low.

Even members of Congress are revolted. Moderate Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine released a statement calling the Supercommittee "a monumental waste of time and opportunity" that "represents yet another regrettable milestone in Congress's steady march toward abject ineffectiveness."

"It paints a portrait of dysfunction that further crystallizes for the American people their government's incapacity for producing solutions to our major challenges."

Despite various stories about eleventh-hour meetings and last ditch efforts it didn't even look like the Supercommittee tried all that hard. The panel hadn't formally met in weeks and some of its members, along with much of Congress, started to leave town for Thanksgiving over the weekend.

President Obama, who had a hands off approach to the Supercommittee's work, appeared in the White House briefing room on Monday evening to declare in a brief statement that Democrats were willing to offer concessions but Republicans in Congress "have refused to listen to the voices of reason and compromise that are coming from outside of Washington."

"So far, that refusal continues to be the main stumbling block that has prevented Congress from reaching an agreement to further reduce our deficit," Obama asserted.

I don't know who was more at fault for the failure to get a deal -- Democrats or Republicans -- but there's plenty of blame to go around.

If you shot up every member of Congress with truth serum and asked them what needs to be done to fix our deficit and fiscal mess I think they would all admit the same thing -- that taxes need to be raised and spending needs to be cut, including entitlement reform. But because of partisan pressures, lobbyist and special interest influence, and even an unwillingness on the part of much of the public to live with the tough choices that would be necessary, Congress refuses to do what its members believe must be done.

Undoubtedly Obama and his team decided after the mess this summer with the debt ceiling negotiations that there was no advantage to getting involved. But that makes our president ineffectual at best -- and, at worst, cowardly.

It is also part of a pattern. When the president's bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform delivered its report at the end of 2010, Obama remained sphinx-like, not really embracing the commission's recommendations but not rejecting them either.

Had Obama endorsed the report of his own commission, even if there were details he wanted changed, it would have provided a framework for later negotiations.

A year ago he also missed the chance to link raising the debt ceiling to an extension of the Bush tax cuts before the Republicans took over the House. If Obama was going to give on something so big, an issue he has complained and campaigned about ever since, he should have gotten more than an emergency extension of unemployment benefits in return.

It was the same way with the Gang of Six effort. Obama sort of half-heartedly endorsed it, but didn't really make it clear where he stood. Whether it was his caving in on the extension of the Bush tax cuts or the debt ceiling fight, it's hard to know what Obama really believes or what he will fight for.

To again quote Olympia Snowe, "this entire process...is indicative of the vacuum of leadership that's existed at the White House and Congress... When you don't have the president sitting down with leaders to set an agenda, this is what you get."

Discussing the world financial crisis on CBS' "60 Minutes" Sunday, Christine Lagarde, the head of the International Monetary Fund, was asked what she worried about most when it came to the U.S. Her reply, "political bickering."

"Certainly I would hope that on a bipartisan basis both Democrats and Republicans can come to terms in their Supercommittee about the deficit... there is a degree of certainty that is so much needed for markets," she said.

Sorry Ms. Lagarde, Congress was too busy playing to its base and running for re-election to worry about world financial markets.

It seems the president was too. Tuesday morning he flew to Manchester, N.H., to deliver remarks at a local high school on the American Jobs Act.

The American people, along with the rest of the world, are wondering who is minding the store in Washington. They're still waiting for an answer.

Image credit: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

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Linda Killian is a Washington journalist and a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Her book The Swing Vote: The Untapped Power of Independents was published in January 2012 by St. Martin's Press.

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