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Thanks for nothing, super committee

It's Thanksgiving and while Montanans have much to be thankful for even in these tough economic conditions, one thing we won't have to do is shower gratitude on members of the congressional super committee charged with cutting federal spending. After months of work, we can thank them for exactly nothing—which is what they accomplished.

Let's not beat around the bush here. This equally balanced committee of Republicans and Democrats was somehow supposed to come up with a Master Plan to save the nation. Our own Max Baucus was on it.

The committee was a bad idea to start with since it shortcuts normal congressional procedure and seriously limits public input. But it was created as part of the sorry deal reached between the White House and Congress during the bitter debate on extending the debt ceiling late last summer. Its goal, so we were told, was to chop $1.2 trillion in federal spending with the proviso that should it fail to do so, a series of budget cuts would automatically kick in.

But of course, nothing in Washington, D.C., works the way it's supposed to in these days of rancorous partisan battles. Republicans wanted to chop spending. Democrats wanted the spending cuts matched with increased revenues, primarily by closing certain tax loopholes, reducing subsidies to certain industries like oil and gas, and raising taxes on the wealthy.

Almost immediately and predictably, what should have been a very serious public debate about where and how we could bring the nation's budget back into some semblance of sustainability broke down into the old, tired puppet show we've been served for years. Democrats were labeled "tax and spend" and Republicans were criticized for protecting the wealthy at the expense of the populace and continuing to pour money down the black hole of military adventurism.

To hide their diplomatic insufficiencies from the public, the committee decided its best ploy was to close its proceedings to virtually everyone except the members and to prevent them from speaking openly about what was being done behind those thick closed doors.

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Once that happened, enormous amounts of cash from a variety of special interests began to flow to the campaign coffers of the committee members as those interests sought to protect their slice of the federal pork pie. Health care, pharmaceuticals and the military-industrial complex all opened up the taps to let what is called "the mother's milk of politics" flow from their pockets to the waiting hands of committee members.

Rather than have an open and inclusive debate on the direction the country should take to stabilize the economy, restore our financial bond rating and meet the needs of the citizenry, we were given exactly zero opportunity to participate in the discussion. For the taxpaying public, without whose revenues the super committee would have nothing to spend or cut, there was no room at the table.

What we got instead was Baucus telling us how hard the committee was working, how confident he was that they would succeed and how tough he was fighting for Montanans' best interests while seeking a "balanced" solution.

What trickled out from under the closed doors was anything but.

When the original debt ceiling deal was struck, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid were exempted from the "automatic" budget cuts that are supposed to kick in by 2013. In seeking "balance," however, suddenly those foundational programs into which people have paid their entire lives were open to what were called "adjustments." Since the public was entirely excluded, however, it was impossible to know either the extent of what was being considered or to provide meaningful and specific input to the committee reflecting the concerns of the populace.

In the meantime, the automatic cuts to military spending were already being denounced by officials of the same Obama administration that cut the original debt ceiling deal. Leon Panetta, the new Secretary of Defense, began a wailing and gnashing of teeth about how a mere 10 percent cut in military spending over 10 years would "hollow out" America's military. Pure, unadulterated hogwash—to say nothing of a complete reversal of what appeared to be Obama's previous commitment to begin to rein in our bloated military budgets.

When it looked like the super committee would be a super failure, members of Congress began to put forth bills to change the "automatic" cuts to military spending—and so we were treated to a classic example of Congressional bait-and-switch.

Ironically, some progressive members of Congress are overjoyed the committee failed because they feared more Democratic giveaways in foolish and futile efforts to appease Republican demands for cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

Baucus, in comments to the press following the collapse of the committee, offered these words: "I've got ideas. I have to think it through."

Take comfort from that if you can.

Meanwhile, having been excluded from any semblance of meaningful participation, the public gets to enjoy a forest of partisan finger pointing on Thanksgiving Day.

Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at opinion@missoulanews.com.

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