The Superfluous Super Committee

Once again, we have a familiar soap opera. Will the Democrats save the Republicans from crashing and burning as a consequence of the Republicans' own folly?

In this case the soap opera involves the so called Super Committee of Congress.

In August, in order to avoid taking responsibility for a default on the U.S. government debt, a needless crisis of their own making, the Republicans cut a deal under which a bipartisan committee of Congress had to come up with at least $1.2 trillion dollars of deficit cuts by November 23 (Happy Thanksgiving) or automatic cuts of the same amount would kick in beginning in 2013.

While several Democrats on the Super Committee have been in their usual posture of bending over backwards to consummate a deal, Republicans, until this past week, were insisting that taxes could not be part of the bargain -- thus killing any possible deal.

Then Republicans began taking a closer look at what would happen if budget cutting went on auto-pilot as a consequence of their own handiwork. Hundreds of billions in military cuts would kick in, starting in 2013. And over a trillion dollars in Bush tax cuts, mostly for the rich, would expire.

Sounds pretty good to me. So Republicans began backpedaling, incurring the wrath of Grover (The Enforcer) Norquist, and saying that they might accept some tax increases after all.

The latest GOP proposal would cap individual tax deductions but also cut the top income tax rate from 35 percent to 28 percent. The Republicans claim that this would produce a net revenue increase of $500 billion. Democrats on the committee dismissed that as a revenue loser in the long run because it would also make permanent Bush tax cuts that otherwise expire at the end of 2012. However, several Democrats on the Committee were still holding out hopes for a last-minute deal.

"We've got to be willing to probably make some folks mad on both ends of the political extreme," Democratic Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia told CNN. "And you'll know this super committee is getting close if you hear folks on both ends of the political extreme scream the loudest, because that will show that there's actually movement being made."

(With spokesmen like Warner, remind me why we have a Democratic Party?)

With 10 days to go, most Democrats on the committee are still holding out for progressive tax increases as key to the deal, but some are foolishly willing to put Social Security and Medicare and other program cuts on the chopping block.

Please, people. Social insurance has nothing to do with the current economic crisis. The whole idea that the economy needs massive budget cuts, which would be a lead weight on a weak recovery, is a dumb idea. It was dumb when the Bowles-Simpson commission proposed it, and even dumber when fiscal conservatives in both parties went along with the automatic trigger mechanism.

In September, President Obama finally got off the austerity kick and gave priority in his rhetoric to jobs. And guess what? His approval ratings finally started exceeding his disapproval ratings.

The Super Committee needs to die of its own weight and its perverse policy assumptions. Its collapse will leave the Republicans exposed as a party with no plan for economic recovery other than more tax cuts for the rich and cuts in social insurance that most Americans value -- leaving the whole question of what programs to cut and what taxes to raise as the proper subject of a 2012 election that Democrats could actually win.

Here's a better program. Raise taxes on the wealthy and on corporations. Use the proceeds for jobs and public infrastructure investment. Get some budget cuts out of military spending by ending two wars.

My friend Chuck Collins of Wealth for the Common Good calculates that you can get about $4 trillion over a decade by five tax reforms:

End the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy. Restore the estate tax. Add two new top brackets for millionaires taxing capital gains and dividend income as the same rate as salary income. Close loopholes that allow U.S. corporations to avoid taxation by booking income overseas. Add a financial transactions tax.

Presto, $4 trillion over 10 years, without increasing taxes on the bottom 99 percent. That's about the sum that austerity-mongers in both parties want for deficit-reduction. But imagine instead what that $400 billion a year might buy.

Instead of using the money for deficit reduction, let's invest some of it in a 10-year program to make U.S. infrastructure second to none and to put millions of Americans back to work. Let's make the country energy-independent using renewables. Let's declare a holiday on student debt until decent jobs materialize. Let's have high quality preschool for every young child in America. Let's refinance mortgages so that people can keep their homes. Doesn't that beat deficit reduction, politically and economically?

More people working will produce more revenue. If we want additional budget savings, let's end two wars and cut other unnecessary military spending.

If the election is fought over Democratic austerity versus Republican austerity, President Obama might limp to victory over a weak and fragmented GOP field, but the economy he inherits will be no prize. But if Democrats run as the party of the 99 percent versus the 1 percent, and the party of possibility versus penury, then they just might win a mandate worth having.

I would not have written such a piece even two months ago, but the Occupy movements have opened up some new, heartening political space. The victories last Tuesday confirm that most people do not buy the union-bashing, belt-tightening vision for America. Ordinary people are leading, and change is in the air. As someone said, politicians need to get out of the way if they can't lend a hand.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and a senior fellow at Demos. His latest book is A Presidency in Peril.