David Post: Nothing super about it

Published 12:00 am Friday, November 25, 2011

By David Post
Superman! Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound! Fighting a never-ending battle for truth, justice and the American way!
He was Superman, and everyone knew that he would save the world.
Last August, Congress unable to agree on how to reduce budget deficits, appointed a ěsupercommitteeî to do the job. The idea was that 12 members of Congress, half Republicans and half Democrats, half from the Senate and half from the House, could craft a compromise that 535 congressmen and senators could not.
World credit markets were so nervous when Congress almost forced the nation into a default that Congress passed a ělose-loseî law that included $1.2 trillion in automatic deficit savings so distasteful that it thought the supercommittee could finally make the tough choices.
This was real life ěSurvivor,î like the TV shows where strangers stranded on an island form alliances to vote off others. In Survivor Congress, both Republicans and Democrats were confident that they could outwit, outplay and outlast the other side.
Had one member broken ranks and joined the other side, the consequences were dire. Sure defeat in next yearís election because all their political support and money would dry up instantly. Probable loss of both the White House and control of the Congress next year. The only hope was that all 12 suddenly and simultaneously become statesmen, setting aside their individual differences for the collective good of the country.
Despite the damage to the country, both parties were surely relieved when no one from their party broke ranks.
Who was kidding whom? The Super Committee hardly met.
Most communication was like fourth graders passing notes back and forth through others:
Sallyís note to George: Does Billy like Mary?
Georgeís note to Sally: Does Mary like him?
Sallyís note to George: Iíll ask her if youíll tell me if Billy likes her
Georgeís note to Sally: Billy needs to know if Mary likes him first.
By then, the bell rang and class was over.
Like Congress, Billy and Mary had short attention spans.
After three months of passing notes back and forth, the supercommittee finally quit. Its most difficult task was writing the note to tell the world that it quit. None of them were super enough to stand in front of the cameras with flags behind them and tell the world of its failure.
Their assignment wasnít even that difficult. The supercommittee was charged with reducing budget deficits by$1.2 trillion over 10 years, beginning in 2013. No pain this year or next.
Federal spending is approaching $4 trillion per year. So, $1.2 trillion out of $50 trillion, or more, over 10 years should be doable. But it wasnít. Worse, they know that the real task is to close the budget gap by $4 trillion or more.
What will members of Congress do now? Nothing. Blame each other. Undo the $1.2 trillion in automatic cuts, since no one liked them anyway. Posture for next yearís election. Watch its approval rating drop from its current 9 percent. (Isnít that statistically the same as 0 percent?).
If the world economy werenít in such a mess, a failure of this magnitude would probably have sent stock markets spiraling down even more, and interest rates shooting up. Both are worse than tax increases since they reduce savings and raise prices on everything. But at this point in history, the U.S. economy is considered the ěleast of the terrible,î so money is flowing into the United States, pushing short-term interest rates to virtually 0 percent.
Interest consumes 15 percent of the U.S. budget. If interest rates climb back to their 2006 level, the cost will be hundreds of billions a year, in fact, more than the supercommitteeís $1.2 trillion target. If (when?) that happens, the only options will be steeper cuts to all federal spending programs, larger tax increases, or even more enormous borrowings to pay the cost of previous borrowing.
The supercommittee simply lacked the courage to do the right thing.
Why was it called ěsuper?î The only thing that was super was the extent of its failure.
Superman was everyoneís hero. He could fix anything. The supercommittee was, by no means, super.

David Post is a co-owner of the Salisbury Pharmacy and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University.