Super Committee: results to match the name?

There's a surprise in what part of the country dominates the membership. Hint: Maybe the committe's motto should be "Cowboy up." But what's the evidence this group will live up to its name?

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Sen. Patty Murray

There's a surprise in what part of the country dominates the membership. Hint: Maybe the committe's motto should be "Cowboy up." But what's the evidence this group will live up to its name?

Names with "super" connote headstrong, exceptional, all-American. Superhighway, supercomputer, supersize this. Even Superfund radiates wonder and scale.

The new Super Committee, charged with whipping together a legislative solution to the debt crisis, has its name going for it at least. After that, well ...

The Washington Post opined, "The way to describe the spate of appointments to the new 'supercommittee' on debt reduction is depressingly predictable. Or perhaps predictably depressing." Four appointees served on the Simpson-Bowles Commission only to vote against the report's final recommendations.

God can beat partisan swords into plowshares, but what of such veteran senators as Patty Murray and Jon Kyl?

In theory the mechanics of the Super Committee dovetail with the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission (BRAC). BRAC was conceived in 1988 as a way to de-politicize the overtly political question of military base closures, a counterweight to the parochial base-dispersal strategy of the Reagan era. Make decisions predicated on facts, not political favors. Present a package for an up-or-down vote that can't be amended or ornamented with treats.

A Super Committee that dispassionately means-tests and evaluates a debt plan sounds suspiciously utopian, disconnected from human nature. All the more reason then to adopt a few institutional checks.

As Public Citizen and other groups have recommended, committee members should start by not accepting political contributions from now until after they submit their final report to Congress. Without contribution transparency, the committee's work becomes a replay of a 1990s Simpsons episode when Lisa asks her vigilante dad, "If you're the police, who will police the police?" (Homer's response, "I don't know. Coast Guard?" isn't exactly reassuring).

Other recommendations, such as documenting and broadcasting in real-time all meetings with lobbyists and donors, will be tougher to enforce, but they are still constructive ideas.

With all the handwringing and partisanship, there's a major constituency that should be marginally happy with the Super Committee: Westerners. Five of the twelve committee members are from the American West (if we count Texas, that is). Fifty years ago, a joint committee would have been stacked with overfed Southerners. Today, there's only one (slightly) overfed Southerner, Rep. Jim Clyburn, an African American Democrat from South Carolina (take that, Richard Russell)!

There's a Midwest contingent and one Boston Brahmin (John Kerry) but the West is the regnant force. That's a watershed, partisanship and almost-zero gender diversity notwithstanding.

Westerners should regularly go back and soak in Saul Steinberg's 1976 New Yorker cover, View of the World from 9th Avenue. How parochial and narrow New Yorkers are, looking at the world through an East Coast lens. Well, Washington, D.C., is just as provincial. So is Atlanta, Boston, and even Chicago. The West is fly-over country, the Rocky Mountains and LA. That's it.

Questions of public lands, water, and energy are not abstractions for Westerners. Patty Murray will go head-to-head with Texas co-chair Jeb Hensarling over issues like the Endangered Species Act, but they will probably not quibble over funding for the Bureau of Land Management or the Forest Service.

The federal government built the West, and the West will absorb the brunt of the budget cuts, especially if the committee fails to come up with a plan that averts across-the-board reductions. Defense will get whacked as will higher education. Maybe prudence will win out with scrutiny of excesses such as 40 Border Patrol agents assigned to the Olympic Peninsula (a waste that should be nixed) and Title VI funding that helps train the next generation of Arabic and Chinese speakers (a benefit that should not be nixed, in my highly subjective view as a supporter of the University of Washington's Jackson School of International Studies).

Western Republicans can be hidebound libertarians. Western Democrats can be pork-barreling money hemorrhagics. With the new austerity, it's reassuring to have a few Western eyes noodling the fallout.

Super names presage hopeful outcomes. So far so good.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Peter Jackson

Peter Jackson

Peter Jackson is the former editorial-page editor of the Everett Herald. Follow him on Twitter @phardinjackson