Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

A Super-Sized Wish List

Amy Black


September 23, 2011
by Amy Black

Most of us recall the drama that unfolded throughout the summer as members of Congress neared standoff over the issue of raising the nation’s debt ceiling.  The stakes were high.  A divided House and Senate needed to agree on legislation and send it to the President for his signature or the government would fall into default for the first time in history.  Liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans battled more moderate members as party leaders tried to reach a deal to end the fiscal crisis.  With only a few hours remaining, legislators passed and President Obama signed the Budget Control Act, a compromise bill that extended the debt ceiling until the end of 2012 and cut federal spending by $2.4 trillion.

The eleventh-hour legislation ended the immediate crisis, but the agreement included one significant caveat. The Budget Control Act left much of the hardest work undone.  When lawmakers could not reach political compromise on how to rein in deficit spending, they wrote a mechanism into the law intended to force fiscal austerity.  The final provision of the debt-ceiling agreement created the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, which observers quickly nicknamed the “super committee.”  The committee’s 12 members face the daunting task of hammering out a blueprint for another $1.2 to $1.5 trillion in savings by November 23.  Both houses of Congress must agree to the proposal by Christmas.  If not, their failure to act will trigger automatic, across-the-board cuts in federal spending. 

As the dozen members of the super committee begin their important work, I have a few suggestions to offer:

Enter the discussion willing to listen and expecting to compromise.  In today’s hyper-partisan political environment where hyperbole and fear-mongering trump reason and honesty, compromise is in desperately short supply. 

Yet compromise is the very currency of politics. The hard and important work of politics is seeking common ground, finding a way for people from a range of perspectives to live peaceably with one another.   The super committee will not be able to accomplish their task without making many compromises; each member must be willing to enter the negotiations with everything on the bargaining table and a willingness to consider every option.           

Display bipartisan civility.  Democrats and Republicans have worked side by side in Washington for decades, but such bipartisan cooperation has eroded significantly in recent years.  The six Democrats and six Republicans on the super committee can offer a powerful reminder that political leaders can hold to their convictions, find points of agreement, and embrace mutual sacrifice for the common good.

Demonstrate courage by making politically unpopular choices.  The debt-ceiling agreement created this committee because too few congressional leaders were willing to take political risks.  Very few Americans want tax increases even as most people demand that elected officials maintain valued government programs. True leadership is not about giving everyone what they want but making the hard choices that will best serve current constituents and future generations. This committee can model for all of us what it means to govern with wisdom and courage.

Where might they start?  The Call for Intergenerational Justice offers a helpful blueprint.   The super committee should focus their efforts on the four basic (but politically-charged) elements outlined in the Call:  cutting federal spending, controlling health care costs, making Social Security sustainable, and reforming the tax code. 

As individuals and families, we must commit to living within our means, even as we expect our governing leaders to make the difficult but necessary decisions to ensure that our nation does so as well.  As the Call for Intergenerational Justice makes clear, we all must share in the sacrifices necessary to get our fiscal house in order.  This summer, legislators failed to take the actions necessary to secure our nation’s future.  This fall, the super committee has the opportunity to lead with courage and conviction, demonstrating to us all the power and benefits of representative democracy. 

—Amy Black is Associate Professor of Political Science and Chair of the Department of Politics and International Relations at Wheaton College in Wheaton, IL.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”