Who's to blame is the question of the day in Washington, where Republicans and Democrats have been rushing to point fingers ever since the deficit-cutting supercommittee admitted failure and stopped negotiations. But for the rest of the country, the exercise is not particuarly productive. Both sides took positions and held to them, and both concluded that what the other side proposed was worse than the consequences of failing to reach a deal — about $1.2 trillion in mandatory cuts, split about evenly between domestic programs and defense. The only questions that really matter are which party had the better proposal and whether the American people can pressure the other side to accept it before they administer another election-day shellacking.
The public has been pretty clear in opinion polls about which party laid out the proposal it most agreed with, and that is the Democrats. In various iterations over the last several months, President Barack Obama and members of the supercommittee offered up plans along the lines of those agreed to by a majority of the bipartisan Bowles-Simpson commission last year: cuts in defense and domestic spending, reforms to the major entitlement programs, and tax increases targeted toward the wealthy. The principle they stood behind is this: Cuts to domestic programs and entitlements most directly harm the middle class and the poor, and they would not accept that without some contribution to the solution from the rich. That's not class warfare, it's common sense.
Although Republicans are now trying to claim that none of those proposals was serious because they didn't have the signed support of all six Democratic supercommittee members, the truth is that there was substantial agreement among the Democrats — and, more importantly, a willingness by the president to get behind such a deal, even if it meant a 2 to 1 ratio of cuts to tax increases. Republicans, divided among moderates who could be persuaded to make a deal and a tea party wing that abhors compromise, have never been able to put any kind of muscle behind a serious attempt to reach agreement on deficit reduction. The most Republican supercommittee members could muster was an offer to raise taxes by $300 million — and offset almost all of that new revenue by making all the Bush tax cuts permanent and reducing the top income tax bracket to 28 percent. And the Republicans who floated that idea were pilloried for it.
It's also ridiculous for Republicans to claim that the committee's failure is the result of insufficient participation in the process by President Obama. It makes no sense for those dedicated to Mr. Obama's defeat next year to suggest that his involvement would somehow have brought the two sides together.
Now some Republicans are trying to find a way to squirm out of the defense cuts that are part of the penalty for the supercommittee's failure. President Obama is quite right to promise to veto any such legislation. The Pentagon budget surely needs to be reduced in order to bring down the deficit, but across-the-board cuts aren't the best way to do it. Still, a belief in Washington that there need be no consequences for a failure to act responsibly is what got us in this mess in the first place. The mandatory cuts the nation now faces don't go into effect until 2013, so there is theoretically time to strike a deal before the most damaging effects of the supercommittee's collapse are felt. But that won't happen if Congress votes to remove the noose it placed around its own neck.
What needs to happen next is for Congress to renew the payroll tax cut and unemployment insurance extension that are due to expire at the end of the year, both items that should have been included in the supercommittee's work. If those measures are not approved, the tepid economic recovery will sputter and make the deficit even worse. Beyond that, the American people need to make clear to their representatives and senators that the consequence they face for failing to come to a fair and responsible agreement to cut the deficit is one they fear more than automatic defense cuts: losing an election. If that prospect is not enough to persuade them to do the right thing, they deserve what they get.