They were 12 individuals, most with firm convictions, meeting behind closed doors for hours, debating a fateful decision. They stayed and they argued, even as they grew tired and hungry and even angry. One by one, their opinions changed, until they reached a unanimous decision -- the right decision. And that made it all worthwhile.
We remember them mainly because we remember the fruits of their ordeal. They were the "12 Angry Men," the jury in that 1957 Hollywood classic. A dozen citizens who stayed and deliberated under duress simply because it was their civic duty.
And while you may not have thought of Henry Fonda and Lee J. Cobb from my opening description, you surely knew who those 12 individuals were not: They couldn't possibly have been the 12 members of the laughably nicknamed debt-reduction supercommittee. A more fitting moniker would have been the supine-committee.
In a dereliction of duty that will deservedly live in infamy long after their individual names are forgotten, the six Republicans and six Democrats from the Senate and House didn't just fail to make the tough but urgent $1.2 trillion in promised spending-cuts and revenue hikes that the full Congress never had the guts to make. They didn't even have the patriotic decency to get into the parliamentary pit and deliberate all day and night, going over all the proposals and all the options. And voting, again and again, as their coffee got stale and the pizza got cold.
It is too bad that they didn't choose to experience such unpleasantness, physical discomfort, mental weariness -- anger and even rage. Because that's what millions of Americans are feeling after being victimized again by politics as usual.
Instead, in their final daze, the 12 ducked their patriotic duty in order to cover their political aspirations. On the final Sunday of their scheduled deliberation time, the corridors of the Capitol were a ghost town. You'd think the supercommittee members were AWOL -- unless you were watching TV, where half of them were spinning on the Sunday talk circuit. Each party blaming the other.
On Monday, the full supercommittee chose not to stand shoulder to shoulder and take responsibility for their failure. They just issued a piece of paper under the names of their sacrificial co-chairs, Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Tex., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash, announcing they'd failed to do what we entrusted them to do. Now severe automatic cuts will kick in -- and President Barack Obama appropriately announced he'll veto any effort to halt them.
Getting together was not exactly the supercommittee's strong suit. Their last full meeting was on Nov. 1, when the 12 members heard testimony from co-chairs of two efforts that had done what the supercommittee had been tasked to do.
First, the co-chairs of Obama's debt-reduction commission, former Clinton White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles and former Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., outlined a package of $2.6 trillion in debt reduction over ten years.
Next, the co-chairs of a Bipartisan Policy Center study group, former Clinton management and budget director Alice Rivlin and retired Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M, outlined several proposals, the boldest being reforming Medicare so the program would compete directly with private health insurance plans, with the government providing a fixed payment for each beneficiary.
Most importantly, all four of these experienced witnesses urged the supercommittee to go beyond its $1.2 trillion target and approve a "grand bargain" of $4 trillion in entitlement cuts and revenue increases over 10 years.
Domenici, a fiscal conservative, warned his ex-colleagues that those who insist upon solely cutting entitlements or raising taxes will be "complicit in letting America destroy itself, letting this great democracy destroy itself."
If the supercommittee had just rubber-stamped either group's proposals it would have done America a great favor. But of course, voting would have required a second meeting of the full supercommittee.
Instead, the supers opted to do nothing. Which was no surprise to those who know Congress best.
"I know most of you," Bowles said in his Nov. 1 testimony. " ... I have great respect for each of you individually. But collectively, I'm worried you're going to fail. Fail the country." His co-chair, Simpson, added: "You all know what we have to do. In your gut, you know what we have to do." Gut? Say what? Ol' Simpson isn't the only one who's made an unfounded assumption about what is lacking in Washington's new generation.
This gang of 12 not only failed America, but didn't even have the sense of history or decency to get angry about it.
Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.