Super-committee’s time running out

Created in August to craft a bipartisan debt reduction plan, the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction — the so-called super-committee — is now inching closer to its own deadline. In just 10 days, the panel’s members are supposed to present a plan that reduces the debt by at least $1.2 trillion over the next decade, sending it to the House and Senate for up-or-down votes.

No one seems to think that’s possible. Democrats are pushing a balanced approach that demands entitlement reforms, new revenue, and measures to boost the economy. Republicans are willing to accept some new revenue, but only if they get more tax breaks for the wealthy.

In other words, despite occasional talk of “breakthroughs,” policymakers are effectively where they were when the process began.

The latest talk is over a new plan that would kick the revenue can down the road (again).

With a little over a week left to reach a deal, members of the Congressional deficit reduction panel are looking for an escape hatch that would let them strike an accord on revenue levels but delay until next year tough decisions about exactly how to raise taxes.

Under this approach, the panel would decide on the amount of new revenue to be raised but would leave it to the tax-writing committees of Congress to fill in details next year, well beyond the Nov. 23 deadline for the panel itself to reach an agreement. That would put off painful political decisions but ensure that the debate over deficit reduction stretched into the election year.

The details of such an approach have not yet come together, but the super-committee, instead of working out a compromise on revenue, would make spending changes now and then tell the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee to work out revenue details next year.

As if it’ll be any easier to work out a tax-raising deal in an election year.

Even if super-committee members agreed to push off the revenue question until 2012, that’s not much an escape hatch — the panel would be expected to give the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee instructions on how much revenue to raise, and wouldn’t you know it, Democrats and Republicans can’t agree on this, either.

For that matter, there’s absolutely no reason to believe this delayed effort will succeed, either, since GOP officials have said they would use the opportunity to once again push for lower rates for the very wealthy, while Democrats (reflecting the will of the clear majority of Americans) push for the opposite.

And what of the “trigger”? The whole point of the mechanism, also adopted in August, was to create an incentive for policymakers to strike a deal — if they failed, automatic cuts would kick in that both sides would find offensive. With the super-committee likely to fail, lawmakers are — you guessed it — taking a look at changing the triggers. The Washington Post called it an effort to “de-trigger” the automatic cuts.

Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a Republican policy adviser, said, “It’s a pretty ugly moment.” On this, we agree.