By David Gordon and Sean West
The opinions expressed are their own.
There’s a good reason that only paid staffers and blood relatives seem to approve of Congress, as Senator John McCain recently quipped. But it is not the simple reason that Congress continues to fail, as witnessed in the implosion of the supercommittee. Rather it’s that Congress continuously promises unachievable historic fixes when it should instead be focused on slow progress.
There’s nothing wrong with small-scale fixes when they are the best achievable outcome. Congress is hyperpolarized and both sides are fighting for a mandate to reform the entire economy in line with their competing visions. As underwhelming as the August debt limit deal was, in the current political environment, saving over $2 trillion one way or another was a positive result. The fact that Congress could agree to something this large this year is actually quite stunning.
Failure – and the ensuing loss of respect in the eyes of voters – is largely due to leaders on both sides pretending that massive overhauls are in reach when they clearly aren’t. The problem is that Congress isn’t content to just do its job — it can’t help itself but to overpromise and then underdeliver.
During the debt limit debate, voters were treated to a roller coaster ride of epic proportions: One day Congress was going to cut $4 trillion from the debt, the next day the US government was going to default. In March, Congress was going to let the government shut down unless historic spending cuts were put in place. Both situations were manufactured crises that were created with the promise of forcing historic fixes. Neither did.
The supercommittee demonstrates the danger of playing this game. Members spent way too much time pretending they were going to do something historic — trading $3 trillion plans back and forth — instead of simply working on the $1.2 trillion task before them. Failing to reach $1.2 trillion looks that much worse to the public because Congress continuously talked about achieving much broader taxation and entitlement reform.