Closed door supercommittees can now be thrown in the refuge pile of US democratic systems that, in today’s Washington, no longer function in the interests or will of the public. Or indeed function at all.

Earlier today the US debt supercommittee announced it had failed to reach an agreement, split hopelessly over whether the wealthiest Americans should pay more or less in taxes than they do now to reduce the country’s deficit.

As a consequence it couldn’t agree on the necessary US$1.2 trillion in cuts and an automatic trigger will kick in making those cuts equally between Defense and so-called discretionary spending that includes housing assistance, medical programs and highway repair.

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Americans may be suffering now, with high unemployment and a still-recovering economy, but they would certainly have felt those cuts, impacting the most vulnerable and business certainty alike. They would have a right to be angry too, as there was already broad agreement how to cut most of the threshold in areas far less painful to the public, until the question came to whether those earning at least US$250,000 per year should contribute more. About two thirds of Americans think they should.

Reinforcing why Congress has an approval rating that sank to an all-time low of 9% this week, talk immediately shifted to how to avoid those automatic cuts, that a majority of both parties agreed to just a few months ago, with legislative tricks rather than simply coming to agreement.

President Barack Obama stepped back into the process a few hours ago, saying he would veto any attempt to undo the automatic cuts without an alternative.

“There will be no easy off ramps on this one,” he said in a televised statement. “We need to keep the pressure up to compromise — not turn off the pressure.  The only way these spending cuts will not take place is if Congress gets back to work and agrees on a balanced plan to reduce the deficit by at least $1.2 trillion.  That’s exactly what they need to do.  That’s the job they promised to do.  And they’ve still got a year to figure it out.”

But there are very few options left on how to do that. The city’s blizzard weather predictions look more positive than this.

Washington’s refuge pit of dysfunction includes the up-or-down vote in the Senate (gone), filibusters as a safeguard for debate (how quaint), and the ability of the speaker of the House to pull together a majority caucus on any issue of magnitude (Bachmann and co.). Indeed, the era when Congress could tackle big challenges appears to be over.

The biggest obstacle to an agreement, if one is forced to choose just one, is that House Speaker John Boehner doesn’t have sufficient control of his caucus to pass a bill both he and the White House could tolerate.

Republicans could have won this contest of ideas, were they not split between two ideological factions: the anti-tax cult known as the Tea Party movement and the traditional politician Republican who get votes and campaign donations by pumping tax dollars into Defense and ensuring certainty for business.

There have been under-reported moments of compromise, of a sort, including a proposal two weeks ago by Tea Party-aligned Senator Pat Toomey that included a compromise of $300 billion in new tax revenue. That was rejected by Democrats in part because those increases fell upon the middle class and instead cut taxes on the wealthiest.

To make matters worse, the forthcoming year to solve this deficit problem will be sharing the airwaves and newspaper inches with a presidential election campaign.

Newt Gingrich was confirmed this week as the flavour of the month for GOP presidential primary voters. Both Gallup and CNN polls both put Newt and Mitt Romney as the #1 and #2. Both, unquestionably in the top 1%, are firmly opposed to any tax increases for the wealthy under any circumstances.

Away from Capitol Hill, the land of the free and the home of the brave has been brewing counter-establishment movements for some years now. First the Tea Party activists (at least those not directly funded by the Koch brothers), now on the other end the Occupy movements and online campaigns to protect Internet freedoms from efforts by Chamber of Commerce lobbyists towards blacklist filters.

These movements should be seen as evidence that Congress has not been doing its job. Instead, they continue to be relegated to the fringes of public debate and the impasse continues.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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