The collapse of the congressional supercommittee’s efforts to craft a budget compromise satisfactory to both Republicans and Democrats will, like the standoff last summer on the debt ceiling, be presented as evidence that the system has failed. The finger pointing has already begun, with Democrats blaming Republicans for not being willing to raise taxes and Republicans blaming Democrats for not being willing to cut entitlements. The fiasco will require last-minute efforts to avoid damaging mandatory defense cuts. All this will heighten public disgust with Congress. But the opprobrium that will rain down on Washington will be misplaced.
The problem isn’t the fault of senators and representatives who “won’t compromise,” but the fact that control of the current Congress is split between a House that was won by the GOP in 2010 and a Senate that is still controlled by Democrats who were swept in with their victories in 2006 and 2008. Expecting either party to betray their bases in the name of a vacuous compromise that would please no one was always unrealistic. The only way to end the standoff is a new election that will present the voters with a clear choice between the competing visions of the two parties. Fortunately, there is one scheduled less than a year from now that can easily settle the question.
One of the most disingenuous aspects of the discussion about both the debt ceiling crisis and the supercommittee mess is the assumption that it would be appropriate for members of either party to endorse policies they were elected to oppose. Democrats are making a big deal about whether or not some Republicans will repudiate a pledge against raising taxes and blaming it all on the evil influence of anti-tax activist Grover Norquist. But it should be remembered the pledges members of the GOP took on that issue were given to the people, not just Norquist.
A refusal to go back on such pledges is being widely derided as either a sign of immaturity or an instance in which certain members have sold their souls to a Tea Party devil. But a willingness to treat a campaign promise on an issue as serious as this as just one of those white lies politicians must tell to get elected is neither mature nor principled. In fact, it is quite the opposite.
The problem here is not a divide between those members of the House and Senate who see their job as working with their opponents to create a reasonable compromise and those who are prepared to let the nation sink so as to keep their consciences clean. The problem is the gap between Republicans and Democrats on the basic issues of taxes and spending is so vast no amount of the usual congressional logrolling and go-along-to-get-along deal making will suffice. The name calling and spin by which Democrats claim theirs is the “balanced” approach Republicans must agree to or be branded extremists is just rhetoric, not a path to a solution.
In a parliamentary system, the result of such an impasse would be to call a new election immediately. Our Constitution does not provide such a remedy. This means so long as one of the two parties doesn’t disintegrate or give in, the duty of Congress is to act to keep the government running until the next scheduled election can take place. That means allowing the debt ceiling to rise. Crafting legislation that will undo the damage to national defense that the mandatory cuts proposed when the supercommittee foolishness was first suggested is also an imperative.
Next November, the voters can choose between the party that wants to raise taxes and keep entitlements intact and the party that doesn’t want to do either of those things. It is an open question as to whether the Democrats’ Mediscare tactics or the Republicans’ Tea Party aversion to raising taxes will prevail. But that choice ought to be made by the people, not by politicians who jilt the voters who elected them in the first place.