Supercommittee Deadline Looms -- What's at Stake If It Fails?

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COMMENTARY | The Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, known as the supercommittee, was born out of the debt ceiling battle last summer. Officially created by the Budget Control Act of 2011, the committee consists of six members from each party, three from each side of Congress. The 12 members were tasked with reducing the national debt by $1.2 trillion by 2021. This is on top of the cuts Congress passed already, when the debt ceiling was raised.

Before the committee began, many assumed it would fail. The Republicans and Democrats are so far apart on nearly everything, why would a smaller subset of them agree? Now that the deadline is looming, at least one journalist thinks it is a good thing if it can't. Congress must vote on the committee's recommendations by Dec. 23. For Congress to have enough time to debate, those recommendations are due Wednesday. But the recommendations must go to the Congressional Budget Office first. It takes the CBO about 48 hours to numbers crunch, which means the real deadline is Monday.

So what happens if there's no deal? What if the committee can't reach an agreement, Congress doesn't pass it (that's right, after all this, Congress isn't bound by the committee) or the president vetoes it?

Unsurprisingly, no one agrees.

What we do know is that those $1.2 trillion in cuts are coming, one way or another. If the super committee fails, half the cuts automatically come from defense spending, half from nondefense. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned that would leave our military at its smallest levels since World War II and told Congress to "suck it up" and get a deal done. The CBO estimates discretionary programs (everything that isn't Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security) would take 71 percent of the $600 billion. Everything the federal government does that isn't one of those three things is about 18 percent of the budget.

Do you think 18 percent of our budget can absorb $426 billion in cuts? Me neither.

But maybe those cuts won't happen at all. The automatic cuts won't take place until 2013, which is conveniently after the next federal election. And there is nothing in the Budget Control Act of 2011 that says a future Congress cannot override it with a new deal. There's nothing stopping that future Congress from passing a bill temporarily keeping those cuts from happening while they fight over a new deal, just like there was nothing stopping the last Congress from extending the Bush tax cuts past their expiration date.

So all of this political wrangling may be a complete waste of time, and the 112th Congress may go down in history as the worst bunch of do-nothings in our nation's history. While there is still a chance that the super committee may come up with a last-minute deal, I for one am not holding my breath.

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