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Clock ticking on debt panel

One thing is for certain; they are not faster than a speeding bullet.

“They” are the members of the “Super Congress,” a bipartisan committee of representatives and senators who are trying to defuse a spending timebomb that they help build, set and turn on. It looks like that clock will tick down to its final minutes before anything happens.

The panel has been charged with a big job — coming up with a workable plan that will improve the federal budget’s bottom line by at least $1.2 trillion over a 10-year period. That plan can reach the goal with spending cuts, revenue increases or a combination of both.

The job, however, gets even bigger.

The committee has to finish its job by Nov. 23, and the plan has to be something that enough Democrats and Republicans, both positioning for election year sweepstakes that include the biggest prize — the White House — will buy into and approve before Christmas.

The deadlines were established by Congress as a way to force itself to start chipping away at the United States’ massive $14.8 trillion debt. If the committee fails to complete its task, making Congress miss its self-imposed Dec. 23 deadline, then automatic across-the-board spending cuts of $1.2 trillion start taking effect in 2013.

Talk about trying to leap over a tall political building ...

So, with about three weeks left before it has to present its plan to Congress, there is a great deal of silence as to what the situation is. The committee has been conducting its meetings in secret, so there’s no way to know for certain how much progress is being made.

Supposedly the “super” Congress members are hiding out from the public so they won’t be subjected to disruptive pressure, which is an excuse that has been used at nearly every level of government. In a Southwest Georgia community some years ago, a city council was discussing behind closed doors whether to raise that city’s property taxes. Fortunately, the walls were thin enough that the conversations could be heard in the hallway by reporters. When confronted, the mayor attempted to excuse the behavior, which was illegal under state law, by saying the public and reporters just didn’t understand how hard it is to govern.

But while Congress is keeping American citizens in the dark in these negotiations, we’d be surprised if lobbyists and others who spend a great deal of money influencing legislation don’t have some ideas as to what’s being discussed.

There have been reports, though, that the process has bogged down. An indication that those reports have some merit came Wednesday in the form of an extraordinary letter from a group of 100 House (40 Republicans and 60 Democrats) members who urged the supercommittee to consider all options for raising revenue and to aim even higher than its congressional mandate by developing a plan that would improve the 10-year savings to $4 trillion, more than triple the amount that may already be elusive.

“Our country needs our honest, bipartisan judgment and our political courage. Your committee has been given a unique opportunity and authority to act. We are prepared to support you in this effort,” the letter states.

Indeed, Congress is in a position to redeem its image, which is about as low as it can get with Americans right now. There is no easy answer to cutting the national debt, but our nation cannot continue borrowing 40 cents of every dollar it spends.

More than just the supercommittee, Congress as a whole has a unique opportunity to truly exhibit statesmanship. We’ll see whether it has the collective courage to put country ahead of party and seize that opportunity.

— The Albany Herald Editorial Board