The Supercommittee and a Never-Ending Cycle of Dysfunction

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Can't anyone in Washington play this game?

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It may be best, at this point, to simply quote Casey Stengel's infamous yelp of frustration about the 1962 Mets: "Can't anybody here play this game?"

If the '62 Mets were the worst team in major league history, it's also fair to wonder whether any Congress has ever been more dysfunctional, with less cause, than this one. And whether there is a single politician left in Washington who can behave like a leader, or even play one on TV. Asked about the prospects for seeing some production out of the hitless and shut-out supercommittee--even a late-inning bid to solve part of the problem by delegating its special fast-track powers to regular congressional committees--Steve Bell of the Bipartisan Policy Center harked hopefully back to Senate precedent.

In 1983, when Social Security was on the verge of default, Democrat Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Republican Bob Dole broke through with an eleventh-hour revenue-raising compromise. After the debt-ceiling compromise last summer, Sen. John Kerry, a supercommittee member who has tried hard to locate some middle ground, cited that earlier episode as a great legislative moment for compromise.

But back in the 1980s there was a more responsible debate about the balance between revenue and taxes, and a sense of leadership that transcended party. Bob Dole was a quirky sour puss, but he was also a war hero and a commanding statesman of the Senate. It's quite clear that Republican co-chair Jeb Hensarling, who is afraid of offending the GOP leadership he desperately wants to remain part of - a team that in turn is terrified of offending Grover Norquist - will never be Bob Dole.

Also, let's be completely fair to the '62 Mets: today's congressional players are not people who are being asked to perform beyond their skill level, like, say, Marv Throneberry. All they need is a small amount of ordinary human courage that would qualify them to lead. They don't have it. Says Steve Bell, who has seen the best of bipartisanship in the Senate as a former top aide to former Sen. Pete Domenici, R.-N.M., starting back in 1974, eventually rising to director of the Senate Budget Committee: "It's truly a pathetic outcome."

Even for a political season. The proximity of the presidential election is hardly an excuse, since none of the committee members is running. Nor does the calculation made by some Republicans, that they can hold out until Barack Obama is defeated in 2012, make much sense. Does a minority party that runs a legislative body with a 9 percent approval rating - less than what Americans think of polygamy and communism -- really think it's going to gain the public support it needs to take over the White House and both houses of Congress and get its way in 2013?

So with the supercommittee on the verge of failure -- midnight Monday is the deadline by which it was to have given the Congressional Budget Office a plan to cut $1.2 trillion out of the deficit over 10 years -- we have entered a kind of Kafka-esque realm of non-accountability (to switch metaphors). A committee designed by Congress (dubiously, I might add) to avoid responsibility is proving unable to take responsibility itself. So it is kicking things back to the original evaders of responsibility, completing the circle of dysfunction. And now the main impulse in among Republicans in that same Congress will be to try to rescind at least part of the "sequester" on defense, thus seeking to undermine their body's own attempt to rob itself of the ability to undermine itself when it created those automatic triggers in the first place.

"I'm not saying it's anybody's fault," Hensarling explained expansively on Sunday when he was asked about the supercommittee stalemate, and the total avoidance of responsibility. "We've got people with very different views frankly of what it takes to produce jobs and what it takes to produce economic growth."

Please. We understand the difference in ideology. We understand the anger of the tea-party movement. We understand that Washington has, until now, proved itself all but incapable of changing its spending habits. But let's fairly assign responsibility, even if the politicians won't. The tea party movement resulted from a slow burn after years of betrayal by the conservatives' own kind, a trend that started frankly with Ronald Reagan (Remember David Stockman, and The Triumph of Politics?) and ended with George W. Bush. Obama only provided the tipping point.

But the point of this exercise was to cut the size of government, which last week hit a new melancholy milestone, a record level of $15 trillion in debt. And there were Democratic proposals to do the necessary cutting, even in entitlements, and in substantially greater amounts than what the Republican proposals called for. They just didn't want to commit to raising the very deficit they were assigned to reduce by rendering permanent the Bush tax cuts. Hensarling is a walking, talking emblem of the odious big government he purports to lament.

The intractable nature of the dysfunction means it's only a matter of time now before Moody's, the No. 2 ratings agency, joins Standard & Poor's in downgrading U.S. government debt. America has only one thing going for it right now: the governments of Europe look even more dysfunctional.

Image credit: J. Scott Applewhite/AP

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Michael Hirsh is chief correspondent for National Journal.

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