Poll an average American resident on the success of the supercommittee---the group of eight members of Congress who were tasked with cutting the budget deficit by more than one trillion dollars---and it's likely they'll offer the same answer all over: What's that?
Head to the center of power in the United States, Washington D.C., and that lack of interest and information is just as pronounced. "It's too confusing," said Bonnie, a Southeast D.C. resident and grocery store employee, shaking her head. She tried to explain why she hasn't heard of the supercommittee and finally said she simply never follows Congress's movements: "They say one thing and do another thing and it's just too confusing."
Nearly three-and-a-half months after the bipartisan commission--formally known as the United States Congress Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction--formed, its mission was largely inscrutable to most Americans. In the nation's Capitol, which has long stood as an illustration of how disconnected Congress can be from the people it's working for (or against), the gap is even more pronounced.
And now that the committee has failed to reach an agreement on how to raise taxes or where to cut spending, Congress may have to pull a "trigger" on Americans next month---in which dramatic cuts in domestic and national security spending will have to be made.
If you ask some observers--Nobel Prize winning liberal economist Paul Krugman, Illinois Democrat Jesse Jackson, Jr.--the failure of the supercommittee is blessing in disguise. "It shouldn't have been attempted in the first place," Jackson said in a statement last night. "Congress and the president should do their jobs by making choices and using the regular processes for tax policy, authorization and appropriation."
But by the lights of others--workers' rights organization, the National Employment Law Project--the lack of agreement creates a frightening moment.
NELP president Christine Owens points out, "Unless Congress acts promptly, the economy will take another hit in the New Year as two million unemployed workers will lose the modest federal benefits they rely on to get by and that, in turn, support businesses in their communities."
One of the many issues caught up in the supercommittee's deliberations included an extension of critical unemployment insurance benefits, which will expire Dec. 31, barring intervention.
The D.C. metro region overall has an unemployment rate of 11 percent. That's bad enough, but in parts of Wards 7 and 8, the poorest, blackest wards in the city, unemployment is close to 30 percent. For black men, some estimates put real unemployment---a number that includes able-bodied people who have dropped out of the workforce (often because they are discouraged)---at around 50 percent.
As the Urban Institute's Peter Tatian put it, "You also have a lot of people who are returning from incarceration or have other legal problems, and so those folks find themselves at a disadvantage in hiring."
On top of the dismal numbers of unemployed, these wards also have large pockets of working-class and middle-class black folks, many of whom fall into the category of the "working poor." That is, they're one hard knock away from not being able to meet their financial obligations. For many of these people, unemployment insurance is one thing that stands between them and abject poverty if they lose their jobs.
Yet just cross the Anacostia River from the Capitol complex, a mere three or four miles away, and questions about the supercommittee's work are met with befuddlement or blank stares. "I never heard of that," was a common refrain during a recent afternoon spent in the Skyland neighborhood in Ward 8. And the shorthand explanation---that the committee was created by the president to reduce the deficit---didn't do much to clear up the confusion.
One Southeast resident who gave her name as Tisha just threw up her hands and laughed a little sheepishly, saying of congressional wrangling over deals and votes, "I just wait to hear what the results are."
It's hard to blame people---especially people whose congressional representative, Eleanor Holmes Norton, doesn't have a vote---for not caring, and it's even more difficult to try to press the issue. The people who care most about Congress's doings are the people who are paid to do so: Congressional staffers, members, and journalists. And the incredibly complicated dealings of the supercommittee are even more inaccessible. "It puts the people covering it to sleep," says one Beltway reporter.
In part, that's because so much of what it does is on the theoretical side. It's incredibly difficult to think in trillions of dollars over a decade--$2.2 trillion, the amount that President Obama agreed to reduce the deficit by in order to get Congress to raise the debt ceiling this summer--is practically an unimaginably large number.
And the failsafe cuts that will happen if Congress can't come to an agreement will likely happen in bits and pieces that won't be that noticeable. At least, at first. While Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security will be spared, whittling down the money for social services instead of raising revenue will start to take its toll.
That's where theory becomes reality for many of those living paycheck to paycheck in Southeast D.C. There, it's enough to understand the bigger picture of what's unfolding on Capitol Hill. "They don't seem to care about us," summed up grocery store employee Bonnie, before going back to work.