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Published: Saturday, 8/13/2011

GUEST EDITORIAL

Not so super

WASHINGTON POST

The best way to describe the appointments to the new "super-committee" on debt reduction is depressingly predictable. Or perhaps predictably depressing.

None of the congressional leaders, Democratic or Republican, Senate or House, took much of a risk, if any. They named lawmakers to the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction who for the most part know the substance well, but have shown little inclination to move away from entrenched positions of party orthodoxy: no new taxes on the Republican side, no touching benefits on the Democratic side.

One chastening fact is that four of the 12 served on the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, better known as Simpson-Bowles. All four voted against the final proposal: two Democrats (Montana Sen. Max Baucus and California Rep. Xavier Becerra) and two Republicans (Michigan Rep. Dave Camp and Texas Rep. Jeb Hensarling). None of the four who voted for Simpson-Bowles and are still in office was tapped to serve on the super-committee.

The Republican picks seem unlikely to be willing to raise taxes in the search for $1.2 trillion to $1.5 trillion in savings. House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio named Mr. Hensarling, the House Republican Conference chairman, to serve as co-chairman, joined by House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Camp and House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton of Michigan. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell named Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, along with Jon Kyl of Arizona and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania.

Mr. Portman, director of the Office of Management and Budget under President George W. Bush, combines substantive knowledge and deal-making skills. Mr. Camp, commendably, told Reuters that "everything is on the table."

But the Hensarling and Toomey choices are particularly disappointing. Both take an unyielding line against new taxes. Mr. Hensarling's statement this week underscored this position, expressing his determination to "help solve our spending-driven debt crisis."

Mr. Toomey, a former head of the conservative Club for Growth, voted against the debt-ceiling deal that created the super-committee. He said he feared the promised cuts would be overridden by a future Congress, and pressed for more immediate cuts, the last thing this economy needs.

The Democratic roster is similarly disappointing. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi tapped the able ranking member of the Budget Committee, Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, along with Mr. Becerra and Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina. All are Pelosi loyalists, unlikely to deviate from her position that entitlement benefits must remain untouched.

The selections by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid are also problematic. Mr. Reid's designated co-chair, Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, has experience on the budget and appropriations committees, but carries a built-in conflict of interest: She chairs the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the campaign arm of Senate Democrats. That makes it even less likely that she would risk alienating the party base -- or ceding a potentially powerful campaign weapon against Republicans -- by endorsing serious entitlement reform.

Mr. Baucus' stated reasons for voting against Simpson-Bowles -- opposition to increasing the gasoline tax, cutting farm subsidies, and raising the retirement age for Social Security -- do not inspire confidence that he will take a more flexible approach now.

The third pick, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, may be the most intriguing. Mr. Kerry's expertise lies in the foreign policy arena, yet he has expressed sympathy for the balanced approach of the bipartisan Gang of Six, which modeled its efforts on Simpson-Bowles.

"I think it could be a component of whatever the debt deal is," he said after the Gang of Six plan was released. We hope to be able to say the same after the super-committee produces its proposal.


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