Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Debt Super Committee—Will We Get a Deal?

It’s back to work in Washington, DC and all the attention is now on the Super Committee and their goal of cutting spending by at least $1.2 trillion over ten years.

If the committee fails to come up with a plan that passes the Congress, there would be $1.2 trillion in automatic cuts. The health care special interests have reason to hope they will fail—the fallback cuts would only impact Medicare providers in a small way—2% in provider cuts—and not directly impact beneficiaries or Medicaid generally. Any Super Committee deal would likely be more far reaching if for no other reason than to protect the defense budget from the huge cuts the fallback would require.

But the fallback would not solve any of the systemic problems the health care entitlements face and only prolong the inevitable day of fiscal reckoning.

Even a $1.2 trillion reduction—$2.1 trillion with the additional $915 billion reduction in discretionary spending that was part of the deal—is only a down payment on solving America’s fiscal woes—we face a $10 trillion budget shortfall over the next ten years.

Will the Super Committee succeed? That’s the big question in Washington.

Many believe it cannot succeed because all of the fundamental policy differences between conservatives and liberals remain while many in both parties think failure and taking the issues to the next election makes political sense.

Others worry that the fallback cuts to defense are so great that outcome has to be avoided and the committee just has to be serious about finding a solution. Add to that the political consequences of failure with voters, who watched the debt ceiling talks and are more disgusted than ever before. The latest polls say the voters are now looking to “throw the bums out” no matter which party they’re in if they don’t grow up and start solving problems.

With federal health care costs being the biggest deficit driver the Super Committee has another impossible challenge. No one wants to cut the Medicare benefits of current retirees or those who will retire in the near-term. But the Super Committee has only a ten-year budget window that it has to work within. How do you reduce Medicare spending between now and 2021 but not hurt a current retiree or someone whose plans for retirement assume Medicare benefits won't change?

My sense is that if we see another messy political stalemate in the Super Committee the next election will be about throwing the incumbents out—Democrat and Republican. I am hopeful both sides understand they need a deal, or the 2012 political consequences will be dire for anyone now holding a federal office.

But, as I said during last summer’s debt ceiling debate, just exactly how both sides, which have been so intransigent, can find a way to compromise isn’t clear to me.

One scenario for what could will happen suggests that the Super Committee will not be able to come to an agreement, the $1.2 trillion fallback trigger's automatic cuts would take effect, and the impact of that trigger, primarily on defense, would be so bad that the Congress would be forced to revisit the entire deal in 2013––after the election. Think of the annual Medicare physician Sustainable Growth Rate fiasco but every year for the whole budget until a consensus in the country can develop about how to permanently fix this.

But more failure at reaching a deal will only make the voters more mad then they already are--if that is possible.

Some have suggested the real solution is to "go big"--agree to a real longer-term solution that begins the process of entitlement reform that is inevitable. While "going big" is arguably the right thing to do it would also mean a "great compromise." Something both the far left and the far right would find anathema in this hyper-charged 2012 election environment. A grand compromise would likely mean more taxes and deep entitlement cuts--something that members of Congress aren't likely to do for fear of retribution from their respective base with the primary season just months away. Can you imagine what the Tea Party would do during primary season to any Republican who voted for a tax increase? Or, what the left would do to a liberal that "sold out" the entitlements?

Another scenario, suggested by a report last May from the Committee for a Responsible Government, details almost $1 trillion in a wide variety of smaller scale common ground budget cuts already proposed by both Republicans and Democrats. This list illustrates that there might be a means to eek out $1.2 trillion in savings and avoid having to deal with the most controversial ideas--tax increases and at least far reaching entitlement reform.

The Super Committee has an almost impossible job in front of them. Any "go big" and systemic solutions I can think of would appear to be politically impossible. Maybe they can kick the can down the road one more time. Maybe not.

What a mess.
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