No one who has watched official Washington's march toward complete dysfunction can be surprised by Monday's announcement that the Congressional "Super Committee" is shutting down without agreeing on a plan to begin putting the nation's finances in order.
The 12-member panel was doomed from the start, stocked with too few members skilled at the art of compromise and too many whose idea of a give-and-take negotiation is "you give and I take." And its focus on long-term deficit reduction, rather than on immediate steps to revive a still moribund economy, was grossly misplaced.
Senior Republicans in Congress and their party's would-be presidents on the campaign trail were particularly intransigent, refusing to entertain serious discussion of a meaningful tax increase on the wealthiest Americans. The long-term deficit reduction they claim to favor cannot be achieved without more tax revenue, a lot more tax revenue; Democrats on the committee appeared willing to accept some cuts in the social safety net but it's unreasonable to ask them to do so without a guarantee of more revenue.
For his part, President Obama showed an encouraging willingness at the outset of the committee's deliberations to work on a balanced program of tax hikes and long-term budget cuts but of late has distanced himself from the process. Perhaps his leadership could not have made a difference, but it would have been nice to see him try to assert it.
The committee's breakdown means that the Congress most likely will spend 2012 tying itself in knots over how to undo the "automatic" deficit reduction measures supposedly triggered by its failure. Defense hawks in both parties already are hard at work to spare the Pentagon from the budget ax, Republicans are trying to figure out how to preserve the Bush tax cuts for their wealthy patrons and Democrats are focused on protecting Social Security and Medicare, even if it means more debt.
What a sad spectacle. We've now had three successive "wave" elections, in which voters disturbed at the inability or unwillingness of those in power to act in the public interest rather than the interest of their big campaign contributors, have voted to replace one party with the other. Each party has ridden its waves but neither has captured and acted on the voters' larger message, their desire for a fundamental change in the way Washington works.