One thing is clear -- the prospects for a destructive "grand bargain" have gotten better, not worse.
Congressional leaders in both the House and Senate have now named the 12 appointees to the congressional Super Committee charged with finding $1.2 trillion in deficit savings from some combination of increased revenues and cuts to Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid. A deal that could be very damaging to the most vulnerable in society may be closer than anyone suspects.
As one would expect, the Republican nominees support deep cuts in entitlements and, as signatories of Grover Norquist's infamous anti-tax pledge, oppose raising taxes. Of the Senate appointees, freshman Senator Pat Toomey is the most zealous conservative. Senator John Kyl, part of the leadership team, and freshman Rob Portman, George Bush's Office of Management and Budget director, are also very conservative. Both support privatizing Social Security, and Kyl, for his part, preaches the voodoo supply-side nonsense that cutting taxes raises revenues. On the House side, Speaker John Boehner chose two conservative committee chairs -- Representatives Dave Camp, chair of Ways and Means, the powerful House tax committee, and Fred Upton, chair of Energy and Commerce. While deeply conservative (Camp advocates a 25 percent cut in taxes across the board), they are accustomed to making deals. Jeb Hensarling of Texas, chair of the Republican Conference Committee and the final Boehner nominee, is a more rabid partisan.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi announced that the Super Committee should focus on economic growth and job creation that reduces the deficit. Her appointees - Representatives Jim Clyburn, Chris Van Hollen, and Javier Becerra -- have defended Medicare and Social Security against Republican efforts to cut the programs and have called for raising taxes on the rich and closing corporate loopholes. Clyburn once supported raising the retirement age and cutting Social Security through the inflation rate but backed away from those positions more recently. Becerra, a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, voted against the debt-ceiling reductions and recently said of Republican attempts to slash Medicare and lower taxes on the rich that "most Americans wouldn't ask Grandma for money to buy their rich uncle a second yacht."
Senator Harry Reid chose not to appoint Senators Bernie Sanders or Sherrod Brown or Jeff Merkley, who have stood with the majority of Americans who want Medicare and Social Security protected and who favor raising taxes on the rich to help reduce the deficit. Instead, Reid selected Max Baucus, the chair of the Senate Finance Committee and a conservative Democrat. Baucus has been a consistent supporter of Social Security, playing a key role in blocking George W. Bush's attempt to privatize the program. Baucus was on President Barack Obama's deficit commission and voted against a plan that would have cut deeply from Social Security and Medicare.
The other Senate Democrats Reid selected are more worrisome. Naming John Kerry to the Super Committee, according to The Washington Post, was supposed to "appease liberals." In recent months, Kerry has spoken against the Republican efforts to turn Medicare into a voucher program. But, like Obama, he is fatally attracted to the notion of a grand bargain. In a CNN interview, Kerry touted the $4 trillion "bigger deal" with "a mix of reductions and reforms in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, but also recognize we needed to do some revenue."
The "real problem for our country," Kerry argued, "is not the short-term debt. ... It's the structural debt of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid measured against the demographics of our nation." This is the essence of establishment nonsense. As every projection shows, we have a long-term debt problem, but it is entirely a question of our broken health-care system. Kerry went on to say, "Number one, we've got to deal with this debt and deficit, send Wall Street and the marketplace a message that the United States of America is deadly serious about dealing with this long-term structural deficit." Shrinking the government to expand an economy with 25 million unemployed is oxymoronic. Kerry's appointment should alarm -- not appease -- liberals.
Patty Murray of Washington state is Reid's other pick. The head of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, she has faced criticism from good-government groups that her interests in fundraising will skew her positions on military spending. Republicans have called for her to be withdrawn on the grounds that she's too political.
A little sense would be a good thing for Democrats on the committee. By an overwhelming majority, voters want to protect Social Security and Medicare. They favor tax cuts on the rich and closing corporate tax havens before cutting programs. Democrats with a sense of social decency -- or a sense of self-preservation -- would be wise to stand with that majority. That opinion represents both good policy and good politics, something Tea Party Republicans scorn and Democrats would be wise to defend.
In contrast, the compromise that Obama and Boehner had flirted with before the actual debt-ceiling deal was reached reportedly involved cuts in Medicare (raising the eligibility age by two years) and Social Security (by lowering inflation adjustment to reduce benefits over time). This was "balanced" by lowering tax rates on the rich and corporations but generating more revenues by eliminating deductions and loopholes. But if the Gang of Six deal is any indication, there is no appetite for going after the biggest dodge of them all -- the lower tax rate on income from wealth (capital gains, interest, and dividends) than on work. With that off the table, the only deductions left that can raise enough revenue to make up for lower rates are the mortgage deduction (hitting homeowners), the employer health-care deduction (hitting workers with health care on the job), and the retirement deduction for 401k plans and the like. "Shared sacrifice" here balances harmful cuts for the elderly with tax hikes for middle- and working-class families, while the wealthy enjoy lower rates. Less a grand bargain than a raw deal.
If seven members on the Super Committee agree (say six Republicans and one Democrat), whatever they recommend will get an up or down vote in both Houses with no amendments, no extended debate, no hearings, and no filibuster. The Super Committee must report before Thanksgiving; Congress must vote before Christmas. The elite pressure for a deal is building -- exemplified by Standard & Poor's gambit in lowering the United States' credit rating, helping to gin up hysteria over U.S. debt, generating a drumbeat for a grand bargain. It will take a major mobilization to stave off this perverted notion of shared sacrifice.