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Outside editorial: Nothing 'super' about panel

Posted: November 21, 2011 - 12:00am

The following editorial first appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer:

When the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction was formed in August, there were high hopes that the “supercommittee” would mimic the process in which politics was largely brushed aside to close excess military bases across the nation.

Pennsylvanians will recall how then-Gov. Ed Rendell used every maneuver he could think of, including a lawsuit, to try to keep Willow Grove Naval Air Station open. But in the end, the decision of the Base Realignment and Closure Commission prevailed.

The BRAC process, which began around 1990 and concluded in 2005, was strengthened by a mandate that Congress must agree to implement all of that special committee’s recommendations or none of them. There was little wiggle room for politics.

Unfortunately, there’s a lot of wiggling going on with the deficit supercommittee. So much so, it looks doubtful that what it produces by a Nov. 23 deadline will provide a meaningful cut to the spending that seems to have the country on course to a fiscal tsunami.

It was hoped that a higher-minded supercommittee, with an equal number of Republicans and Democrats, would reject the partisanship that has thwarted agreement on a deficit-reduction plan. Instead, the panel has been embroiled in the same tax hikes-vs.-spending cuts argument.

The tax-allergic Republicans made a significant concession last week in agreeing to about $300 billion in increased taxes over 10 years. But that’s far from the $1.2 trillion in savings being sought. Democrats say the difference is too big to come from spending cuts mostly to Medicare and other safety-net programs.

The incentive that was supposed to compel the supercommittee to reach agreement — the threat of across-the-board budget cuts, with half coming from military spending — has instead inspired some panelists to propose escape hatches to avoid that.

Others are suggesting some of the tried-and-true methods of prestidigitation that Congresses and presidents have resorted to in the past to mask the actual size of spending cuts and increases. One such idea is to arbitrarily put down $600 billion as savings resulting from the end of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The supercommittee will likely come up with something to avoid blowing its deadline. But unless something changes drastically in less than a week, Americans shouldn’t expect much. Each day closer to the 2012 elections seems to further erode any zeal to make budget decisions that might inflame a faction of voters.

What a sad commentary that is, that the panelists would rather do nothing than risk an election loss.

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