They left no stone unturned. No special interest was left unscarred. Yet there was no vote, so voters lack a measuring stick to judge their members of Congress on the Simpson-Bowles proposal.
Instead, in the spring, House Republicans passed a partisan measure that would have cut federal spending by nearly $6 trillion while embracing a plan by Rep. Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) to reform Medicare. The plan failed to secure a single Democratic vote.
The next major bipartisan effort was the attempt by President Obama and House Speaker John A. Boehner to work out a grand bargain on raising the debt ceiling. It was reported at the time that the two sides were on the verge of agreeing to a two-stage strategy for raising the debt limit and cutting more than $4 trillion out of the federal budget through 2021. Reportedly, that plan would have included unprecedented cuts in spending, including at the Pentagon, and significant changes to Medicare and Social Security, the biggest drivers of future borrowing - a major concession for Obama and other Democrats. But those negotiations collapsed and deteriorated into finger-pointing. Plenty of members of Congress made their feelings known about various reported deals, but there was never an actual vote on a long-term solution.
It was the subsequent increase in the debt ceiling that gave rise to the 12-member supercommittee charged with coming up with a plan to cut the deficit by $1.2 trillion over 10 years by Thanksgiving week. Its failure is supposed to trigger automatic cuts in 2013. But, as with Simpson-Bowles and the Obama-Boehner efforts, the supercommittee generated nothing for constituents to use in holding their members accountable.
After more than 19 months of legislators' work on arguably the most important issue of the day, voters in November will have a spartan record by which to assess elected officials.
Sure, we can generalize based on the parties, including the House vote in April. We can look at news releases and public comments by individual members. But we lack a means of judging who is ready to compromise in the country's best interest.
Former Sen. Alan Simpson, one of the cochairs of Simpson-Bowles, said as much when I spoke to him this week. A bipartisan group of 11 commission members - three shy of the number needed to force a vote in Congress - supported the recommendations, he reminded me. Dozens of others, Simpson insisted, had offered public support for a debt-relief plan that included tax and entitlement reform.
But still there is no definitive action in Washington, and the potential result of this inaction, Simpson told me, continues to be frightening.
"In this next year, a lot of things are going to happen," he said. "You're going to see chaos in this country. You're going to see the rating agencies step in. You're going to see inflation kick in. If they can't get it done, you're going to see interest [rates] go up.
"And guess who gets hurt the worst? The little guy they always talk about, the vulnerable. Well, when people begin to see what's going on and nobody's doing anything, I think the people who play chicken and don't have the guts to do something in this situation will be the ones who will lose in November 2012."
Here's hoping he's wrong about the pending economic catastrophe and right about politicians who exhibit cowardice.
Contact Michael Smerconish
Read his columns at www.philly.com/smerconish.