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By now, we've all seen the headlines, both in the traditional media and here on the blogs.
The congressional “supercommittee” stumbled its way toward failure Sunday, with final staff-level discussions focusing mostly on how the panel should publicly admit that lawmakers could not meet their mandate of shaving $1.2 trillion from the federal debt.

Rather than making a final effort at compromise, members of the special deficit-reduction committee spent their final hours casting blame and pointing fingers [...]

Thinking human beings knew from the outset that this was doomed to "failure," if that's what this is, despite the fact that Washington's Pundit Class continued to believe that dividing the panel evenly was per se reasonable, and a formula for practically automatic seriousness and success. (This despite the previous failures of Gramm-Rudman-Hollings, the Simpson-Bowles Commission, the Reform Party, the Concord Coalition, Unity08, Americans Elect, etc., etc., etc.) But dividing things equally between economic saboteurs and, well, just about anyone else in the world, is really just a plan for dragging out the economic sabotage.

But one thing about this fiasco that has so far gone mostly unmentioned in the traditional media is that under the statute that created the Super Committee, missing the Nov. 23 deadline doesn't break up the band, nor does it absolve it of its charge. It only removes their "super" powers, that is, their ability to shield their bill from amendments and the filibuster—which, we might note, they were able to magically eliminate when they wanted to.

What's telling, to me, is that they're giving up and quitting now that the power is gone, even though the responsibility to produce a bill (if you're one of the people who thinks the sort of bill they were likely to produce would have been a responsible thing to do) still remains.

You see, being on the Super Committee simply isn't worth anything, anymore. Because the power is gone. They still technically exist as an entity until the end of January. They just won't try to do anything, because they're not magical and cool anymore.

What the Wise Men of Washington apparently thought they needed in order to "succeed" in this task was complete protection for their bill from any amendment, and from the filibuster in the Senate. In the case of the filibuster, that was something they earlier in the year declined to afford themselves, though it was clear even then that the 112th Congress would be defined by hostage situations enabled chiefly by the filibuster. (An intransigent majority in the House would be no help, but at least it was in fact a majority.)

What's most interesting to me about the outcome, though, is that once the Wise Men of Washington had given themselves the added advantage of setting the filibuster aside, they still produced nothing. There are many reasons for it, of course, but one I think should not be overlooked is that the continued existence of the filibuster at times gives legislators great comfort. Failures of all sorts, and in the face of allegedly great national import, can be blamed on the filibuster. "Well, I wanted to do the right thing, and I voted to do the right thing, but ... we just couldn't get 60 votes."

Among the many faults of the filibuster is that it distorts our ability to hold legislators accountable. If, going into a vote, everyone knows there's little or no chance of getting 60 votes in the upper chamber, the votes cast by representatives and senators alike are difficult to read, since they're all cast in a context in which no one really expects the bill to become law. It's an easy thing to vote to pacify certain constituencies at home by supporting a bill you're personally less than thrilled with if you know it isn't going anywhere. Similarly, it's easy to take a "bold" stance athwart history if you know "doing the right thing" won't get you anywhere, anyway.

So it's very interesting to me that even when the Very Serious People of Washington clear a pathway through the Conventional Wisdom for the Congress to take extraordinary measures to remove the menace of the filibuster, it still doesn't work. How strange that the Congress, stripped of the familiar shield of impenetrable process that usually deflects culpability in cases of failure and given the opportunity to take the tough votes openly and accountably, has opted not to produce any bill at all.

Originally posted to David Waldman on Mon Nov 21, 2011 at 07:14 AM PST.

Also republished by Daily Kos.

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