President Obama’s apathy toward the supercommittee doomed it to failure, says Steve Bell, senior director of the Economic Policy Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center. Unlike Pres. Bill Clinton, who was “actively involved” in budget negotiations, Obama “deliberately and consistently distanced himself from the debate.”
William Hoagland, who served as staff director of the Senate Budget Committee during Clinton’s negotiations with Congress in 1997, agrees. Clinton’s “economic strongmen” descended on the Hill, Hoagland remembers: Treasury secretary Bob Rubin, chief of staff Erskine Bowles, Office of Legislative Affairs head John Hilley, even National Economic Council chair Gene Sperling, who currently serves as counsel to Treasury secretary Tim Geithner. “I find it somewhat ironic that those people who had been involved and knew how to work across the aisle and between the White House and the Hill were basically absent, from what I can tell, in this round,” Hoagland notes.
Unlike the Obama White House, Hoagland remembers that the Clinton White House had substantive discussions with Congress constantly. “There were 18-hour-day meetings to get to the 1997 agreement. I just don’t think that that was the case in this situation.”
Bell summarizes the difference by saying: “The president made the phone calls.”
But there’s another, more complicated reason the committee flopped, and it’s in section eleven of Public Law 111–139. It’s a list of federal programs exempt from the sequester — a holdover from the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings law of 1985 that Congress reaffirmed in 2010 — and it reads like a progressive’s Christmas list: Social Security, veterans’ benefits, refundable income-tax credits, food stamps, etc. This “poison pill” doomed the committee, Bell contends. With your favorite programs safe from cuts under the sequester, “why in the world would [a liberal Democrat] want the supercommittee to succeed?” he asks.
And Democrats didn’t. That’s why they appointed the heads of their campaign organizations, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.) and Sen. Patty Murray (Wash.), to the committee.