Ari Berman is a contributing writer for The Nation magazine and an Investigative Journalism Fellow at The Nation Institute.
On Tuesday Harry Reid announced his picks for the Congressional debt-reduction "super-committee": Senators Max Baucus, John Kerry and Patty Murray.
Most notable was who Reid didn't pick — the three austerity hawk members of the "Gang of Six" — Kent Conrad, Dick Durbin and Mark Warner. Reid's selections have a natural logic to them. Murray is a member of the Appropriations Committee, the fourth-ranking Senate Democrat and chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which makes her one of the most powerful Democrats in the caucus. Kerry is a respected senior statesman in the party who's become increasingly vocal on economic policy of late, "delivering 'some powerful speeches'...in defense of Democratic Party priorities," according to the Huffington Post. And Baucus, as we all know, is chair of the Senate Finance Committee, which has jurisdiction over Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and tax revenue.
At first glance, Kerry and Murray have been reliably liberal votes within the Democratic caucus, while Baucus is viewed with grave suspicion by progressive Democrats. He's been dubbed "K Street's Favorite Democrat" by yours truly, enabled much of the Bush administration's agenda, and notoriously bungled the handling of the healthcare reform, watering down the bill and stalling the process in favor of GOP votes that never materialized. More than anyone else, Baucus is responsible for the continued unpopularity of the healthcare bill today.
Yet, paradoxically, Kerry and Murray could be more problematic than Baucus on the super-committee. Both Kerry and Murray signed a letter in March calling for a "grand bargain"deal, modeled after the Bowles-Simpson Commission, that would include "discretionary spending cuts, entitlement changes and tax reform." Kerry has continued to advocate for such a grand bargain, most recently on Meet the Press, and both he and Murray represent states with major defense interests, which makes it unlikely they'll vote to significantly curb defense spending. As chair of the DSCC, Murray is also responsible for raising buckets of money from corporate America and embarrassingly solicited campaign cash in June from the Koch brothers.
Baucus, on the other hand, voted against the Bowles-Simpson plan, saying "we cannot cut the deficit at the expense of veterans, seniors, ranchers, farmers and hard-working families." Specifically, Baucus said he opposed the commission's recommendations to turn Medicare into a voucher program, raise the retirement age of Social Security and cut healthcare benefits for veterans. It's hard to believe, but today Baucus might be to the left of Kerry and Murray on economic policy.
The super-committee itself is a profoundly conservative and anti-Democratic entity, immune from public pressure and tasked with deciding between two bad choices — a so-called grand bargain that would significantly reduce the social safety net vs. deep across the board cuts at a time of economic peril. The idea of doing anything to stimulate the economy is totally absent from its purview. The scope of the committee itself, rather than who's on it, is the real problem.
UPDATE: Republicans have announced their own picks by the committee. They are Senators Jon Kyl, Rob Portman and Pat Toomey, and Representatives Dave Camp, Jeb Hensarling and Fred Upton, all relative hardliners who are unlikely to agree to any deal that will include new tax revenues. Kyl is the number two Senate Republican and a close ally of Mitch McConnell, Portman is George W. Bush's former budget director and Toomey is the former president of the militantly anti-tax Club for Growth. Camp is the chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, Upton is chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee, and Hensarling is a past chair of the far-right Republican Study Committee. All six have signed Grover Norquist's "no new taxes" pledge.