<WC1>The agreement on the <WC>"<WC1>fiscal cliff<WC>"<WC1> left the nation's major economic problems <WC>—<WC1> its federal deficit and debt, high unemployment and low growth <WC>—<WC1> on the negotiating-room floor. What went wrong?<WC>
<WC1>Part of the problem may lie with the negotiating style, the procedures and methods of both the Obama administration and Congress. They all try to run it from the top. The natural impulse was first to have the president and House Speaker John Boehner meet. Several sessions as the Jan. 1 fiscal-cliff deadline approached were short, an hour or less. The president complained to his staff that Boehner presented only talking points and wasn't there to negotiate. Boehner complained to his staff that the president did most of the talking, adopting a condescending, lecturing tone.
The fire brigade of Vice President Joe Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell<WC> <WC1>arrived last weekend to hammer out a mini-deal that avoided the immediate fiscal cliff but ducked the hard decisions.
Throughout the standoff, the players used their staff as messengers <WC>—<WC1> but never empowered them to solve the problem.
Could the staffers have done better? The behind-the-scenes story of the failure of the supercommittee last year, until now unreported, suggests that they could have.
The supercommittee was charged with finding $1.2 trillion in deficit cuts over 10 years. To guarantee its success, Congress and <WC>President Barack <WC1>Obama agreed on $110 billion in mandatory spending cuts that would take effect Jan. 1, 2013, if the supercommittee failed <WC>—<WC1> cuts so odious that the supercommittee would not allow itself to fail. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid<WC> <WC1>and minority leader McConnell were fully on board with the plan. <WC>"<WC1>The supercommittee is going to work,<WC>" <WC1>Boehner told me in an interview last year. <WC>"<WC1>I've got Reid's and McConnell's commitments.<WC>"
<WC1>It was a sure thing, they all agreed.
The committee had about three months to do its work. While most of the congressional leaders and supercommittee members were out of town in October 2011, they assigned top staffers to work out a $1.2 trillion deficit-reduction<WC> deal<WC1>.
The group included Boehner's policy director, Brett Loper, and McConnell's top tax and financial policy adviser, Rohit Kumar. Reid designated Jon Selib, chief of staff to the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Max Baucus. Top staffers to the supercommittee co-chairs, Sen. Patty Murray<WC> <WC1>and Rep. Jeb Hensarling<WC> <WC1>also took part.
The five staffers struggled for a week. In my files is a one-page, typed document dated Oct. 23, 2011, showing that they essentially reached agreement. The Republicans had a total deficit reduction of $1.2 trillion and the Democrats had $1.24 trillion <WC>—<WC1> a difference of $40 billion, not much.
Some staffers were ready to break out the champagne. They had a pipeline straight to the leadership in both parties. But the members of the supercommittee did not trust each other. Instead of adopting the staff agreement or a version of it, they decided to go big and craft a deficit-reduction package of up to $3 trillion. They were shooting for a <WC>"<WC1>grand bargain.<WC>"<WC1> The record shows they overreached: The mandatory cuts of $110 billion were not forestalled; the Biden-McConnell agreement has postponed them, but only for two months.
Over those two months, the leaders cannot be detached or indifferent, but they may need to get out of the way and let their able staff, working with bipartisan empowerment, come up with a plan. Maybe the president and congressional leaders should send their relevant staffers to Camp David for a week or two and instruct them to come up with a blueprint.