Portman Once Had High Hopes for Deal

Published Mar 3, 2013. By Jack Torry and Jessica Wehrman.


With all the finger-pointing and name-calling over the so-called sequester, it’s easy to forget there were once high hopes for a negotiated deal on a deficit reduction plan.

And no one back then was more optimistic than Sen. Rob Portman.

Portman, R-Ohio, was one of 12 members of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, which became known as the “super-committee.” Evenly split between Republicans and Democrats from the House and Senate, the members were charged with carving out a compromise agreement on a 10-year deficit reduction plan.

Portman has called the committee’s failure one of the greatest disappointments of his political life. In his mind, the committee came within a breath of reaching an agreement at one point during their lengthy negotiations, only to have it collapse.

“It was just hard,” Portman said. “The political will just wasn’t there.”

Portman had been an eager volunteer for the committee, which was created as part of a law that cut spending in exchange for raising the debt ceiling. A former director of the White House Office of Management and Budget under President George W. Bush, Portman signed up even though some advisers urged him not to.

But even then, he warned of the catch: If the committee couldn’t reach an agreement, sweeping, mandatory spending cuts — called sequestration — would kick in, indiscriminately chopping $1.2 trillion out of the budget over a decade’s time. Portman called it the “Sword of Damocles,” referring to a Greek legend emphasizing the danger that comes with power.

At the time, the cuts were so unimaginable, so arbitrary, most believed they would never happen. Even after the committee collapsed, President Obama vowed during the 2012 presidential campaign that they wouldn’t occur.

In hindsight, Portman wonders if the punishment actually encouraged the committee to fail. “The cuts were going to be made anyway,” he said. “So why make the tough decision?”

Steve Ellis, vice president for the budget watchdog Taxpayers for Common Sense, said so many of the fights that have occurred since then — most recently the fiscal cliff, with its combination of spending cuts and tax hikes — have occurred because the super-committee couldn’t find an answer.

The cuts, known as sequestration, “have taken all the oxygen out of the room,” he said, adding there are better ways to cut spending. “Instead, we’re faced with across-the-board cuts that are by definition not going to make a lot of sense because we’re cutting the good and the bad the same amount.”

Maya MacGuineas of the nonpartisan Campaign to Fix the Debt, which aims to find answers to the nation’s debt and deficit problems, said despite the committee’s failure, she believes that some of the ideas it came up with could ultimately be used to solve the nation’s fiscal woes. Portman and other members of the committee “worked really hard to come up with a viable, credible package,” she said.


Robert Bixby of the Concord Coalition, a Washington organization that favors balanced budgets, said the committee never really had a chance.

“They were chosen by congressional leadership,” he said. “And it did not seem that the congressional leadership had the strong drive to ensure that a deal was enacted.”

He said he had hoped that if anyone could forge a compromise, it would’ve been Portman and then-Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., the new Secretary of State.

It also seems like a distant memory, but back then both sides were talking. Even as the budget cuts loomed last week, President Obama and House Republicans seemed loathe to engage, with Obama meeting with congressional leadership only after the deadline passed.

“It was a big missed opportunity,” Bixby said of the super-committee. “If you looked not just substantively but politically as well, if you look at the politics of where we are now, it’s pretty dismal. They’re not even talking. It’s almost like the campaign is still going on.”

In retrospect, Portman said he doesn’t know that he would’ve done anything different. He said he felt like he gave enough to the Democrats. He was willing to put revenue on the table. He negotiated in good faith.

“I wish things had been different,” he said. “But I must tell you…I don’t know what I could’ve done more than I did.”

Super-committee members

  • Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas (Co-chair)
  • Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington (Co-chair)
  • Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Maryland
  • Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Arizona
  • Sen. John Kerry, D-Massachusetts
  • Sen Pat Toomey, R-Pennsylvania
  • Sen. Max Baucus, D-Montana
  • Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio
  • Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-California
  • Rep. Dave Camp, R-Michigan
  • Rep. James Clyburn, D-South Carolina
  • Rep. Fred Upton, R-Michigan