The failure of the congressional Supercommittee to reach an agreement on reducing the deficit was not just bad fiscal news. It was a significant failure of political leadership.
Not only did the committee move us one step closer to a genuine fiscal crisis, but also it put the dysfunction of Congress on full display. At a time of great economic stress, its members lost sight of what failure would cost the country in lost economic growth and foregone job creation. They did not fully appreciate that inaction ensures grave economic risks. Even worse, they sent a signal to the American people — who overwhelmingly wanted to believe that common ground is still possible in a divided age — that partisan politics is stronger than the national interest. Failure robbed Americans of hope at a time when they desperately needed some.
Where do we go from here? We did learn some important lessons from the Supercommittee’s many weeks of work.
An obvious one is how difficult it will be getting our fiscal house in order. The Supercommittee proved that deficit reduction is hard on the substance and even harder on the politics.
The fact that its members could not salvage a formal agreement from their discussions, unlike special committees in the past, makes clear that it will take a supreme effort of political will to move the nation past this point. Though even in failure, the committee could have done much more to educate the American public on the hard choices necessary to get our fiscal house in order.
A second, related lesson is that fixing the deficit will require politicians who can set aside the politics of the moment. The members of the special committee were unable and unwilling to do that. Some gave me the feeling that they wanted to defeat an agreement, not achieve one, and none seemed willing to go against their party priorities. Though they laudably tried early on to keep partisan messaging from derailing their efforts, by the end, each side was trying to make the other look bad. They worked hard to present their own party as flexible and open to solutions on tax increases or spending cuts, and the other as entrenched and unyielding.
Why were the politicians unable to reach a solution when the American people clearly wanted one? The White House and President Obama were mostly silent. Congressional leaders of both parties supported their negotiators’ positions, neither demanding an agreement nor pressuring negotiators to reach one.
To their credit, rank and file members of both parties did go on record urging the Supercommittee to set aside partisanship and arrive at a resolution. But their voices could not drown out the ideological activists dead-set against raising taxes on the wealthy or finding meaningful cuts in entitlements.
The members of the Supercommittee had neither the influence on Capitol Hill nor the willingness to forge a solution that would lead the country forward. They did not strive for an agreement large enough to allow room for the necessary trade-offs to solve the problem, and in the end, they and congressional leaders seem to calculate that they would pay a greater political price for reaching an agreement than for failing.
Those who favored a compromise bear some responsibility here: ideological activists were able to exert more pressure than the majority who wanted to see an agreement. In the future, the voices of moderation will have to be louder.
Meaningful progress on our fiscal problems will require skilled politicians at the highest level to roll up their sleeves and take a risk with their own political bases. It has been done before, when politicians like former Republican Sen. Bob Dole and former Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan stepped up and made hard decisions. They were able, when the occasion demanded, to use their public stature and their political gifts to command attention and sway public opinion.
For the final lesson from the Supercommittee’s failure is that it’s not about the numbers, it’s about political leadership. Our fiscal crisis is still with us. The issues that broke the committee’s back have not gone away. Congress has no choice but to press on. Surely the president and members of Congress must now grasp the magnitude of our fiscal problem and the necessity of shared sacrifice to resolve it.
Sometimes in politics, you have to fail before you can succeed. Even in failure, the Supercommittee provided some valuable lessons. Our hope must be that our political leaders can discern them, and that this failure will pave the way for progress.
Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.