The Supercommittee and a Never-Ending Cycle of Dysfunction

Can't anyone in Washington play this game?

Supercommittee 3 - J Scott Applewhite AP - banner.jpg

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?

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Michael Hirsh is chief correspondent for National Journal.

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