Super Fallout: Why the Debt Committee Failed

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Sen. Jon Kyl (Getty)

TIME's Jay Newton-Small says that poor voter turnout means that most people aren't represented in the United States' most representative body. Congress is representing the extremes, and that's why it feels like nothing's getting done.

Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on the Brian Lehrer ShowJay Newton-Small, congressional correspondent for Time magazine, discussed why the congressional super committee failed to meet its deficit reduction goals.

The primary problem

Even before the super committee announced that it would be unable to agree on $1.2 trillion in spending cuts—this the umpteenth kick of the deficit reduction can—Congress' approval rating was at nine percent. To call it "abysmal" would be putting it gently; if a poll came out today, it's likely the numbers would be even worse.

From whence the gridlock? Is Congress broken, or is it merely doing its job: representing a country that's increasingly polarized and unwilling to compromise? Jay Newton-Small said that while there's some truth to the latter, poor voter turnout means that most people aren't represented in the United States' most representative body. Congress is representing the extremes, and that's why it feels like nothing's getting done.

The system of closed primaries creates candidate that are less interested in crafting compromises, so you get these massive failures. There is a silent majority that isn't represented here because frankly they don't show up and vote in primaries...The primary process is increasingly polarized, so your choice [in the general election] is increasingly stark.

Holding the line on taxes

The biggest issues that stymied the super committee were revenues and entitlements, which has been the case all year. Republicans, eager to cast Democrats as the ones who left a perfectly good plan on the table, touted that they were willing to concede $300 billion in new revenues—despite most of them having signed anti-tax activist Grover Norquist's "no taxes" pledge.

However, Newton-Small said those revenues mostly came from things like opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve to drilling and counting those fees at revenues. As tax loopholes were to close, bringing in more revenue, top rates would drop from 35 percent to 28 percent, practically negating the gains made by lessening deductions and credits, and ultimately creating a new hole of $3.3 trillion over the next decade. That's why Democrats didn't take the deal.

It was like taking a cork and trying to stop up a fire hydrant. It didn't make any sense...Democrats called it political theater; even Grover Norquist called it political theater.

But in this particular theater, most politicians feel they have to play the part. The next elections are less than a year away. And as Newton-Small observed, it's the extreme ends of the political spectrum, not the center, that are deciding who's on the ballot. Better not to compromise than to appear weak.

Incumbents didn't want to go into this campaign year having voted to, if you're a Republican, raise taxes, or if you're a Democrat, cut entitlement benefits. That's just killer going into an election...Everyone from the leaders down, there was no one on the side of getting this done.

How transparency hurts

Ironically, Newton-Small said, C-Span is at least a little to blame for the log jam.

C-Span here is synecdochic for all of the media access to Congress that Americans now "enjoy." Congress was never meant to be scrutinized the way it is now, Newton-Small said, with every session televised and armies of round-the-clock reporters covering members' every move. It's not a body that's meant to get things done quickly or cleanly; perhaps we shouldn't want to see how the sausage is made?

Indeed, increased transparency for Congress may in fact hamper progress, rather than make the body work better.

Those kinds of negotiations, where you're willing to give something up and go against your own self interest, are the hardest kind of negotiations, ones that really cannot be done in front of camera.


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Comments [45]

Amy from Manhattan

C-SPAN *caused* the empty chambers in Congress? I remember hearing that C-SPAN *revealed* that most of the time senators & representatives were orating to a mostly empty room.

Nov. 23 2011 12:41 AM
dsimon from queens


in my article,i address your comment, as well as others, such as the reason for the capital strike posed by RL comment.

Nov. 22 2011 11:58 AM
Janet from Brooklyn

There seemed to be no mention that the Super Committee is based on the right wing agenda that there should be no government deficit. Obama accepts this notion and runs with it - he even set up the Deficit Reduction commission on his own. I find it amazing that the Democrats have accepted the idea that cuts in entitlements should be part of the deal - FDR must be rolling in his grave. The failure of this committee was the best news I've heard in a long time. After all, it was Obama who extended the Bush tax cuts. Not much difference in the two parties.

Nov. 22 2011 11:56 AM

gary: "But republicans have shown that DECREASING taxes will increase revenues to the government."

Yes, there are times when income taxes have been cut and revenues have gone up. But that doesn't mean that one caused the other, or that the lower rates didn't reduce revenues compared to the existing rates.

Revenues almost always go up because of a growing economy, an increasing tax-paying population, and inflation (if one is using nominal dollars). These factors usually are more than enough to outweigh a few percentage points changes in marginal tax rates. So increases in revenues aren't due to tax cuts, at least at present levels.

Sure, I'd like to believe we can get something for nothing too. But with revenues at 60 year lows as a percentage of GDP, it's hard to say that we don't have a revenue problem as well as a spending issue.

Nov. 22 2011 11:25 AM
gary from queens

Bush was a big government big spending republican. not a true conservative.

As for increasing revenue by decreasing taxes, none of you have shown it is an honest terminology. revenue is income from all sources. not just taxes.

As for demonstrating that revenues increase with lowering the tax rates, read my article for the proof:

Nov. 22 2011 11:19 AM
Justin from nyc

I found Jay's comments to be intelligent and insightful, but she needs to remove 90% of the "I mean" s and "ya know" s and "um" s. We all do it to some extent but on a radio program it is um, well, I mean, it's distracting.

Nov. 22 2011 11:18 AM

@ gary

"Republicans have shown that DECREASING taxes will increase revenues to the government."

Yeah, because the Bush tax cuts proved that...

If you're going to go on the Laffer Curve at least learn what it means first. Those tax cuts did wonders when top rates were at 70%, not so effective now...

Nov. 22 2011 11:00 AM

well the simple problem is too much federal government

Nov. 22 2011 10:58 AM

"But republicans have shown that DECREASING taxes will increase revenues to the government."

-- it doesn't, but if it did, when did republicans ever prove it??? They did not! But if it were true, then the Bush tax cuts would have us rolling in dough right now. How did that work out for us? We're rolling in Bush's crap!

Nov. 22 2011 10:56 AM


Yeah Joe, let's deflate our way out of this problem instead. That's a recipe for going back to the Great Depression, that was fun!

Easy money from the Fed [under Greenspan] was surely PART of the problem, (although at the time it was widely felt the Chinese controlled the pricing on the long bond), but I think was a lot more going on that brought us to where we are now. Let's not oversimplify...

Nov. 22 2011 10:56 AM

"But republicans have shown that DECREASING taxes will increase revenues to the government."

-- that is such crap! It might work if Demand were there, but it's not. The market is holding back over $1 trillion, and small businesses are not hiring because demand just is not there. So, unless you get money to the middle class, no reduction in taxes will ever increase revenue. It's the wrong answer to a different question.

Nov. 22 2011 10:53 AM

Gary, why would Obama demand that THIS regime step down to placate the protesters? Are you talking about OWS? I don't think they're protesting Obama.

Nov. 22 2011 10:48 AM

nisimformed on most of what you say...the Fed caused the bubbles that caused the financial crisis...printing money isn't the answer.

Nov. 22 2011 10:48 AM
gary from queens


You and you guest are really getting my goat.

Your guest says (as Obama and Dems say) that when you increase taxes, you are inceasing revenues. revenues is now the new word for taxes.

But republicans have shown that DECREASING taxes will increase revenues to the government.

You are creating a dishonest convention or terminology.

We need intellectual honesty on this show.

And now, she says that CSPAN, and not the inflammatory dumb cable shows are creating the division in this society

Nov. 22 2011 10:44 AM

Thanks to the Citizens United ruling by the Supreme Court, the 1% can use tons more money to appears equal to the 99%. Such neutralization is the worst way to achieve balance in a society.

Nov. 22 2011 10:42 AM
gary from QUEENS

The HYPOCRISY by Brian and his MSM friends is intolerable.

When Dems have the edge among the three branches, we hear them rant about partisanship and failing to get stuff done.

But when Republicans had the edge, I remember the rant was the reverse. MSM and Dems defended filibustering and all the parliamentary rules that slowed the republican "assault".

I wish i had a buck every time Brian and friends reminded us of the wonderful "balance of powers" that the Framers built into the system!!

Nov. 22 2011 10:42 AM

I actually think Ron Paul has some good ideas, but he has some terrible ones too.

If Ron Paul had won in 2008:

The financial system may very well have collapsed! He has said he would like to eliminate the Fed, so they wouldn't be around to prevent financial collapse. So would we be in a recession or another depression?

Bin Laden would very likely still be alive! He would have "worked with the Pakistani Authorities" to capture Osama, and called the operation "absolutely not necessary". Would the Pakistani military have helped, or did they actually know Osama living within walking distance of a military base?

He would legalize marijuana! Can't say I really disagree on this one, we could cut the prison population and make tax revenue on it.

Nov. 22 2011 10:41 AM

"placate the protesters" and you will not remain leader for very long. Showing such weakness is not very presidential, and you're enemies will hammer you for it.

Nov. 22 2011 10:39 AM

people may "hate" Congress, but they like their own congressperson.

Nov. 22 2011 10:37 AM

Joe, when overseas troops are spending money, they're spending 99% of it on base buying US goods shipped there. You've made a good effort, but you've saved us very little money. But I'd love to bring the troops home anyway. It's just that the economical argue holds very little water.

Nov. 22 2011 10:36 AM
gary from queens


An obama supporter to explain to us why Obama is not demanding that the THIS regime step down to placate the protesters.

Why the inconsistency?!!

Nov. 22 2011 10:33 AM
Paul I. Adujie from New York City, United States

It is a decent argument by George Will, to the effect that the US Congress exemplifies democratic norms and thorough representative government for the people of America, even when the congress is polarized and obviously paralyzed

It certainly cannot be argued that the present US Congress is doing a great job in its current absolute logjam and extreme paralysis even as the American economy is in debacle and quagmire and the nation is at the brink of economic and financial precipice… via high rate of unemployment, burgeoning mortgage foreclosures, tens of trillions of dollars in national debt and deficit etc!

The US Congress is supposed to be one of the three branches of government, in the American democracy and an instrument or machinery for fathoming solutions to national challenges such as the ones enumerated above.

The US Congress bickers and dithers on, and the American people are suffering and the nation is in the throes of economic woes! What use is the congress then, if it cannot provide answers in time of national crises such as it is presently?

Nov. 22 2011 10:31 AM
Calls'em from Somewhere dry and desolate

The people may "hate" Congress, but they love what they are doing - stopping the 0bama's socialist agenda. And they have added many Republicans to not only the House and Senate, but to most of the state capitals and legislatures as well. Conservatives are also winning suburban races as well. The American people have spoken and they do not want the unbridled taxing and spend policies that the libs want. Conservatives are winning even in liberal places like Ted Kennedy and Anthony Weiner's seats in NYC & Mass. The overall message - that NPR and WNYC never tell is that the vast majority of the American people want to end the destructive madness of the 0bama regime.

Nov. 22 2011 10:29 AM

you bring home troops they are still in the army in most cases...they still get paid, but they spend their money here rather than other its better to have troops at war and all around the world stirring up trouble?

Nov. 22 2011 10:29 AM

Your guest just made an incredibly telling comment - you're no longer allowed to take a strong position. Our politics are so dysfunctional that simply stating a firm position is a serious vulnerability if you want to be reelected. Maybe we should have a strict one term limit for all elected officials - if nobody is worried about keeping their seat, maybe they'll actually be willing to do something useful.

Nov. 22 2011 10:27 AM

I'm frustrated by the claim that the polarized Congress merely reflects the polarized electorate. There are many issues that command substantial majorities. A modest rise in tax upper income tax brackets is very popular, and has majority support among Republicans. A mix of revenue increases and spending cuts to deal with our fiscal problems has majority support, even among Republicans. The inability to compromise is due in some part to the makeup of those who vote in primaries and scare current representatives with primaries from the right, not to the supposed polarization of the public on these issues--that, and the ideologues who were voted into Congress in 2010.

Nov. 22 2011 10:26 AM

Bring all the troops home and unemployment goes up 5%. The ones already coming home can't find a job, and congress can't even pass a law to help them - Paul would be against that law. How do you expect to grow the economy if you just keep adding unemployed service people to the pile?

Nov. 22 2011 10:22 AM
Scott from Lower Manhattan

Toomey's "tax increase" is a complete sham. It is conditioned on making the Bush tax cuts, and specifically the tax cuts at the high end, permanent, thus cutting taxes by more than what Toomey was offering.

Nov. 22 2011 10:21 AM
Karen from NYC

AND the conservative "Bible," "The Federalist Papers," says the same re super-majorities: Madison rejected the idea because, he said -- if you read in 21st century English -- you'd never get anything done if you needed a super majority to do it. That's why the Constitution provides so few instances in which a "super majority" is required to accomplish an action; they thought about it and said "No way." The Senate rules need to be changed.

Nov. 22 2011 10:20 AM

Ron Paul has said thats true...but he as commander in chief will bring all the troops home as a start...if he gets elected you have to assume he has a mandate to cut...

Nov. 22 2011 10:19 AM

lets all start calling them the stupid committee

Nov. 22 2011 10:19 AM

Ron Paul will not cut one dime. An opposition will rise up to prevent passage of anything he puts forward. It'll be just the same stalemate from the other side. get real!

Nov. 22 2011 10:18 AM
Karen from NYC

The problem with Congress is structural: the 60-vote filibuster rule. There is no incentive to compromise if no one can pass legislation without a super-majority, because super-majorities are almost impossible to achieve. Why agree if (1) the other side had you beat, because you don't have 60 votes or (2) you have enough votes to keep the other side from getting 60.

So I am in a "de facto" 9 percent; the rules are encouraging gridlock.

Nov. 22 2011 10:18 AM
Scott from Lower Manhattan

On polarization, Newton-Small has it exactly right. The problem is the primary process which brings out the extremists to determine the choices for everyone else. There is a fix to that though. Abolish plurality voting and replace it with range or pairwise-ranked voting. Either method would allow candidates to disregard the primaries and run in the general elections regardless because doing so would not help the opposing party the way doing so under plurality voting.

Nov. 22 2011 10:17 AM

the democrats are great?

Nov. 22 2011 10:16 AM

The female guest is correct: it's the entertainmentization of politics. We were never meant to watch this sausage-making so close up. It's not pretty - it's not supposed to be.

Nov. 22 2011 10:15 AM
Tony from UWS

George Will misses it when he says that the committee is representing the people. Polls show that a majority favors undoing the Bush super rich tax cuts. The republicans are not representing their constituency.

Nov. 22 2011 10:14 AM
Lin from NYC

I tuned in late and wonder if you
mentioned the Norquist influence discussed
on 60 Minutes.

Nov. 22 2011 10:13 AM

Interesting that the clip said "Congress is doing its job, it's just that Congress is of two minds".

That explains it all: we have a schizophrenic running the country. Someone put Congress back on it's meds...

Nov. 22 2011 10:12 AM

The problem is government is too big...reduce the size and we reduce the budget...Ron Paul will cut a trillion year one as President.

Nov. 22 2011 10:09 AM

Aloof? It's the legislative branches responsibility to legislate. What's the point of Obama stepping in, putting the pressure on, and then just being blocked by a House that's basic platform is "we won't compromise". He's lost enough political capital trying to "compromise" with obstructionists.

Using Hillary as VP would be a great move, but lets be realistic he's not gonna step out of the election and she's not gonna be on the ticket.

So our choice is between Obama and whoever ends up on the Republican ticket.

If someone should step aside, it's the Congressional leaders who by their unwillingness to compromise are in effect refusing to govern.

Nov. 22 2011 10:09 AM
John A.

Beware of people saying "We're just doing what the people want" such is not leadership, its followership.

Nov. 22 2011 10:09 AM
Martin Chuzzlewit from Manhattan

ADDENDUM: Doug Schoen expanded in an interview on WOR's John Gambling and said that, though HILLARY would never challenge Obama.... if he stepped aside, she would accept the nomination in a heartbeat.
Following upon Chris Mathews's a growing chorus even among Dems that this guy is just not right for this job.

Nov. 22 2011 10:08 AM
Cory from Planet Earth

9%? Congress is doing exactly what each of its members was elected to do. The electorate ought to give Congress a 100% approval rating and give itself a 0% approval rating.

Nov. 22 2011 10:05 AM
Martin Chuzzlewit from Manhattan

So Obama again remained aloof on yet another important issue, refused to get involved in crafting a deal….. and the gridlock continues.
The most important article of the year-- yesterday in the WSJ--entitled “THE HILLARY MOMENT”

2 Democrats with long experience- Doug Schoen and Pat Caddell – urge Obama NOT TO RUN in 2012 for the good of the country and the Democratic Party !!!!!!!!!!

They suggest that he step aside for HILLARY CLINTON because he has revealed himself to be an ineffectual and uncompromising partisan ideologue, without the skills to govern a nation of diverse ideologies, who will not be able to advance legislation or recovery even if he does get a second term … leaving us with 5 more years without leadership and action. This is something our economy and our nation can ill-afford.

Nov. 22 2011 09:27 AM

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