The Bipartisan Deficit Commission led by Democrat Erskine Bowles and Republican Alan Simpson voted 11 to 7 in favor of their far-sighted plan to cut the deficit by $4 trillion within the decade.
But it can be classified as only a symbolic victory, because under the rules of the commission, this nearly 2 to 1 margin represented a pointed failure to reach the 14 votes needed pass the recommendations on to Congress.
Three votes more were needed—and Republican Reps. Paul Ryan and Jeb Hensarling, as well as centrist Democratic Senator Max Baucus, are the alleged fiscal conservatives who should be blamed most for killing this proposal.
Their failure to follow through on their constant talk about the importance of reducing the deficit and the debt represents a ducking of responsibility at the moment it mattered most. And whenever any of them tries to parrot their favored lines about fiscal responsibility in the future, they should be asked about this moment of hypocrisy and hackery.
I take no pleasure in saying this. I’ve always considered Ryan in particular as one of the brightest lights in the Republican Party, a person of intelligence and sincerity who valued the power of ideas guided by a sense of generational responsibility. But there is no integrity in this vote, just a lot of spin and CYA with an eye toward future campaigns.
Ryan had good things to say about the commission’s work, calling it a “success” and promising that its work would guide his proposals as chairman of the Budget Commission in the Republican House. Then he turned around and provided a decisive “no” vote, making him functionally no better than the liberal Democrats and union leaders who demagogued the deficit commission as the “cat food commission.”
One of Ryan’s problems was in revenue increases within the plan, despite the proposal’s reduction of both the current top bracket and the corporate tax rate to 29 percent in a pro-growth bid.
Yes, under the proposal loopholes and some current deductions would have been lost, but under this logic the flat-tax proposal being developed by Sen. Jim DeMint and Rep. Mike Pence will have to be considered a tax hike as well, because it almost certainly will eliminate some deductions and raise some rates in order to achieve a simple flat tax, which, incidentally, I support. But that’s what happens when you start treating tax cuts as theology; you lose any sense of perspective. You only see one side of the ledger—you stop dealing with math and abandon the responsibility of governing in the process.
Conservative Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, by contrast, deserves great credit for backing the deficit commission’s proposal, even though he did not think it went far enough. Perhaps no senator is more fiscally conservative than Coburn, but he did not let himself get spooked by the possibility that someone would question his credentials in a future campaign. He kept his eye on the big picture and had the guts to add his name to a bipartisan compromise that moved the ball decisively in the right direction. He knew enough not to make the perfect the enemy of the good.
Likewise, liberal Sen. Dick Durbin deserves huge credit for backing the commission’s plans, despite huge protests from his core constituencies. He supported the proposed increase in the retirement age to 69 in 2075, with manual labor exemptions, as a sensible proposal despite intense union opposition. He pushed for stimulus measures like an immediate payroll tax holiday and followed through on his promises when he received that concession. He acted like an honorable senator with an eye out for the national interest, not the special interests.
The rest of the liberal Democrats on the panel voted against it, as expected. Liberal orthodoxy today is dominated by the mirror image of the “deficits don’t matter” school of thought once championed by Dick Cheney. There had been rumors that Andy Stern, the former head of 1199/SEIU labor union, might be both bolder and more responsible than expected, but he reverted to type.
In the end, all the members of House of Representatives on the panel, with the exception of the departing Democratic Rep. Jack Spratt, voted against it, driven by the short-term political considerations that make them a reactive branch of government. The senators, on the other hand, acted senatorial, taking the long view of America’s strength and stability for the most part.
The sole exception was Democratic Sen. Max Baucus of Montana. Once considered a voice of bipartisan conciliation and fiscal responsibility, Baucus abandoned those principles when they mattered most. He played the rural class card, arguing that efforts to reform farm subsidies and especially a proposed 15 percent increase in gas taxes would “paint a big red target on rural America.” He revealed himself to be much smaller than his reputation.
Remember, this was not a binding vote. Rather, it was a vote that would have allowed the gutsiest bipartisan debt commission in our history to deal with the deficit to live another day and be part of a vigorous congressional debate. But instead the folks who would rather demagogue the deficit in elections and then ignore it when in office have won this round. They were aided and abetted by the deficit deniers who have an ostrich-like view of America’s economic competitiveness. The worst criticism should be reserved for those like Ryan and Hensarling and Baucus, who knew better but did nothing.
The Obama administration also deserves blame for this commission’s near failure because it did not make its success a priority. Instead it was content to watch from the sidelines as serious people struggled to deal with our most stubborn long-term problems. The White House showed no leadership on the president’s deficit commission.
The American people are still ahead of our elected representatives on this issue. Our deficits and our debt represent an existential threat to the United States, as the world’s largest debtor nation cannot remain the world’s sole superpower indefinitely. We need to take action together, and this commission was the best chance we will see at a bipartisan plan in the near future. The absolutists who see a pain-free plan from their side of the aisle’s perspective, with no entitlement reforms or no revenue increases, are not serious. They are part of the problem.
For all the courage many members of this commission showed in staring down the long-term challenges we face, the cowardice of a few doomed their work to a dusty shelf while the time bomb of our national debt ticks on.