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Race and Beyond: Did We Really Expect the Super Committee to Succeed?

Most Americans Are More Worried About Their Jobs

SOURCE: AP/ J. Scott Applewhite

Members of the super committee meet on September 13. Ultimately, they failed to agree on a plan for $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction before the committee's Thanksgiving Day deadline.

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I have little doubt that most Americans woke up the morning after the congressional super committee admitted defeat and, as I did, yawned.

The Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, formed in August after the debt-ceiling standoff, surrendered Monday, offering a terse statement that declared its failure. “[W]e have come to the conclusion today that it will not be possible to make any bipartisan agreement available to the public before the committee’s deadline,” the statement said.

Big surprise. All the preceding weekend, members of the committee—six Democrats and six Republicans selected from the House and Senate—took to the chat shows to cast the impending failure on the other party. Democrats slammed Republicans for refusing to raise taxes on billionaires and millionaires; Republicans implausibly countered that Democrats refused to cut spending.

For the most part, though, I suspect the debt-reduction debate is an abstraction to average, work-a-day folks—whether they have a job or not. Most Americans simply want an economy that is growing in ways that give them good employment opportunities and a chance to become more prosperous. Anyone paying attention to the debate in Washington, however, probably sees the bickering on Capitol Hill as business as usual in the game of politics. And, like me, they yawn.

A crisis of some sort comes and goes hourly in Washington, like passengers and trains through nearby Union Station. For the most part it has a modest impact on most people’s daily lives. This latest fiscal drama was supposed to be the endgame to last summer’s near-fiscal collapse, when only a looming default on our national debt led lawmakers to come to a partial debt-reduction deal and then create this super congressional committee to finish the job.

The 12 super lawmakers were granted power in September to draft a binding plan to cut $1.2 trillion from the federal debt by Thanksgiving Day. Well, guess what happened. That’s right, the committee didn’t finish the job. Still, the sun rose the next morning and Old Glory yet waves. I yawned as I tapped on my iPad to read the news and reactions to what the super committee did or, more precisely, did not do.

Now if the doomsayers are correct, the $1.2 trillion (say, just how much is that in real-people money, anyway?) will be cut automatically from the budget beginning in January 2013. Those cuts would be split almost evenly between domestic discretionary and defense spending, the most draconian way to balance the budget.

But of course, even that future-forward crisis may never come to pass. Some lawmakers are already talking about changing the rules so that the automatic cuts, known as sequestration, never occur. “The sequestration is not engraved on golden tablets,” said Sen. John McCain (R-AZ). “It’s a notional aspiration and I think we’d have sufficient support to prevent those kind of cuts from being enacted because of the impact it would have on national security.” President Barack Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) think otherwise, stating yesterday that the entire sequestration must proceed if Congress does not find a way to compromise on spending cuts and revenue raising to tackle future federal budget deficits.

That was what the super committee was obviously supposed to do. So what was the point? The answer is simple: politics, the business of Washington.

Fortunately, next year is a big election year. Nothing substantial can be decided until after the next president is known and the new Congress is seated. That means voters will have their say about the shape and course of the nation’s economic fortunes before anything can be settled.

Indeed, the battle lines are already taking shape. As my colleague Tanya Somander at ThinkProgress points out, conservative leaders are reluctant to cross swords with Grover Norquist, head of the extremist, antitax group Americans for Tax Reform. Norquist holds a death grip on conservative politicians who fear primary challenges if they seek to save the nation by demanding wealthy Americans pay their fair share of taxes.

President Obama vowed not to allow Congress to take the shortcut from their fiscal responsibilities. “There will be no easy-off ramps on this one,” the president said shortly after the super committee announced failure. “The only way these spending cuts will not take place is if Congress gets back to work and agrees on a balanced plan to reduce the deficit by at least $1.2 trillion. … they’ve still got a year to figure it out.”

Yawn! That’s never going to happen. Wake me up when it’s time to vote.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.

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This is part of a regular column: Race and Beyond

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