The Consequences of a Debt Committee Stuck in Neutral

What their inaction could mean for America.

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The Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, more commonly known as the debt "super committee," continues to work here in Washington. But with a November 23 deadline to cut $1.5 trillion in spending just weeks away, it's not clear if this work is yielding any results.

The 10-member committee of congressional Republicans and Democrats has worked in relative secrecy since they began meeting in September. They have had very few public meetings. When meetings were held, signs of progress were not encouraging.

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Lawmakers seem to be aware of the growing discontent with Washington. On Wednesday, 40 House Republicans and 60 House Democrats sent the debt committee a letter urging the panel to consider all options. The Republican signatories said the panel should consider raising taxes in an effort to create new revenue, a move opposed by many in their own party. Democrats who signed the letter have offered cuts to social benefit programs, breaking from an earlier party line.

"To succeed, all options for mandatory and discretionary spending and revenues must be on the table," the lawmakers wrote.

Rep. Jeb Hensarling, a Republican from Texas and a co-chair of the committee, is starting to sense the unease with the committee's progress. Last week, he said that he's still encouraged by the committee's progress.

"I remain encouraged that the members of the Joint Select Committee know how serious the situation is," he said. "I believe they are all committed to achieving the goal, and until the stroke of midnight on November 22 we still have plenty of time to do the committee's work."

Many people don't share his enthusiasm for the committee's prospects. All around Washington there is chatter about what would happen if the committee—which was formed because Republicans and Democrats failed to compromise on the debt ceiling increase—fails to compromise.

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Automatic cuts triggered. If the committee fails to act, $1.2 trillion in automatic cuts will kick in December 23. These cuts were part of the original plan to form the committee as a last-gasp solution if Republicans and Democrats came to an impasse.

With signs that an impasse is possible, the harsh reality of these cuts is setting in. Defense spending would be cut by $1 trillion over the next decade, causing reductions in the size of the U.S. fighting force. Cuts would also reduce programs to modernize the military and eliminate Air Force programs to produce new planes.

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has warned of the dangers posed by these cuts for months. This week, other high-ranking generals offered similar stark assessments of the impact of cuts on the military.

"Cuts of this magnitude would be catastrophic to the military," Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno told the House of Representatives. "In the case of the Army, it would significantly reduce our capability and capacity to assure our partners abroad, respond to crisis, and deter our adversaries while threatening the readiness and potentially the all-volunteer force."

Other cuts include decreases in Medicare spending. Medicare could lose up to 2 percent of its overall budget. Budgets across the federal government would also be reduced, although it remains unclear where these cuts would come from.

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Without action, failure. The debt super committee was created this summer just as Standard & Poor's downgraded U.S. debt for the first time in history. The downgrade seemed to add urgency to the committee's work, and there was hope that compromise could be reached.

So far, this hasn't happened. It's unclear if the lawmakers have made any progress. Details on their work—where reductions could be made, agencies or programs that would be affected, a blueprint for long-term deficit reduction—have been non-existent.

At the same time, frustration with the inaction of the committee and Congress in general is growing. According to a New York Times/CBS News poll, only 33 percent of Americans believe their representatives should be re-elected, while only 6 percent believe other members of Congress should keep their jobs.


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