Super Fallout: Why the Debt Committee Failed

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.