Batesville Herald Tribune, Batesville, Indiana

December 14, 2011

Reducing the deficit will require skill

Lee Hamilton
The Herald-Tribune

-- — The failure of the congressional supercommittee to reach an agreement on reducing the deficit was not just bad fiscal news. It was a significant failure of political leadership.

Not only did the committee move us one step closer to a genuine fiscal crisis, but also it put the dysfunction of Congress on full display.

It sent a signal to the American people – who overwhelmingly wanted to believe that common ground is still possible in a divided age – that partisan politics is stronger than the national interest. Failure robbed Americans of hope at a time when they desperately needed some.

Where do we go from here? We did learn some important lessons from the supercommittee’s many weeks of work.

An obvious one is how difficult it will be getting our fiscal house in order. The supercommittee proved that deficit reduction is hard on the substance and even harder on the politics.

The fact that its members could not salvage an agreement from their discussions, unlike special committees in the past, makes clear that it will take a supreme effort of political will to move the nation past this point.

A second, related lesson is that fixing the deficit will require politicians who can set aside the politics of the moment. The members of the special committee were unable and unwilling to do that. Some gave me the feeling that they wanted to defeat an agreement, not achieve one, and none seemed willing to go against their party priorities.

Supercommittee members did not strive for an agreement large enough to allow room for the necessary trade-offs to solve the problem, and in the end, they and congressional leaders seemed to calculate that they would pay a greater political price for reaching an agreement than for failing.

Meaningful progress on our fiscal problems will require skilled politicians at the highest level to roll up their sleeves and take a risk with their own political bases. The final lesson from the supercommittee’s failure is that it’s not about the numbers, it’s about political leadership. Our fiscal crisis is still with us. The issues that broke the committee’s back have not gone away.

Congress has no choice but to press on. Surely the president and members of Congress must now grasp the magnitude of our fiscal problem and the necessity of shared sacrifice to resolve it.

Sometimes in politics, you have to fail before you can succeed. Even in failure, the supercommittee provided some valuable lessons. Our hope must be that our political leaders can discern them, and that this failure will pave the way for progress.

Lee Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.