The center can hold. That’s at least part of the big-picture takeaway after the House passed a lopsided if 11th-hour debt ceiling and deficit reduction bill by a refreshingly bipartisan margin of 269 to 161.
The extremes were united in their disapproval, sniping over the bill’s ideological imperfections. On the right, the Club for Growth and The Heritage Foundation lobbied for opposition among Republicans against Speaker John Boehner. On the left, MoveOn.org and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee accused the president of weakness and selling out. Congressional members of the Tea Party Caucus and the Progressive Coalition refused to sign on through the bitter end.
But politics is often a compared-to-what proposition, and the alternative to this imperfect debt ceiling deal was default. It would have been a devastating self-inflicted wound to our economy — a political crisis creating a fiscal crisis. That’s why responsible party leaders along with business organizations like the Chamber of Commerce were trying to strengthen a centrist congressional coalition in contrast to the professional polarizers’ play-to-the-base impulse.
The final plan — to be voted on Tuesday in the Senate — would add up to more than $2 trillion in spending cuts over the next 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office, while avoiding another dysfunctional debt ceiling debate until the 2012 elections are over.
In a true negotiated settlement form, no one side got everything it wanted. And the prospects of a grand bargain have once again been kicked down the road, albeit a few months, in the form of a new joint special committee of Congress comprising six Republicans and six Democrats. It’s intended to build on the excellent work done by the Bowles-Simpson Commission and the Gang of Six, but with a crucial procedural difference: Its recommendations on $1.5 trillion in cuts will require an up-or-down vote on a plan that will be presented by Thanksgiving.
Additionally, the committee’s work will be focused by the prospect of triggers that would automatically cut defense spending and entitlements if the committee is deadlocked on partisan lines. As with all things, the devil is in the details, and the seriousness of the commission will be determined by the people appointed to serve on it. Paul Ryan is rumored to be a likely pick on the GOP House side of the aisle. The Senate’s six seats could be ably filled by the Gang of Six — a proposal that would help break the prospects of deadlock from Day One and ensure bipartisan progress toward long-term fiscal responsibility.
Any serious plan to deal with the deficit and the debt will address tax reform and entitlement reform. We need to raise revenues — which we can do by closing tax loopholes and without raising rates — and we need to adjust the formulas for an aging baby boomer population. This will help ensure that Social Security and Medicare remain solvent for future generations. It’s hoped that this committee will seize the rare opportunity to do something big, bipartisan and binding.
Some liberal Democrats are feeling as angry as the tea partiers in 2009 after surveying the deal, wondering what they got from the plan — noting that the president’s aim of balance from increased revenues was not immediately achieved. But most cuts will be delayed for a year to help foster the recovery, and investments like Pell Grant funds for college tuition have actually been increased. And when President Obama called for citizens to call their legislators or e-mail their desire to get a deal done, the response was overwhelming — an important reality check.
Independents voted for divided government in 2010 — but not for dysfunction, let alone the prospect of default. This is not a dynamic they are going to want to encourage by giving the GOP the keys to the car.
But closing the chapter on this dysfunctional debt ceiling debate does feel like a victory lap as much as it feels like falling over the line. Yes, we avoided going over a cliff, but too many people in Congress — propelled by ideologues and the activist class — seemed all too willing to drag us over if they did not get their way.
We have avoided default, but a downgrading remains a possibility, in large part because of the chaos of this process. Hyper-partisanship does not inspire confidence. Even Boehner must have some buyer’s remorse after patiently trying to corral his caucus and realizing that he needed Democratic votes in the House to stop a default.
The tea party can feel good about changing the debate in Washington about the direction of spending. But if reducing the deficit and debt is truly their No. 1 goal — as was often proclaimed during the 2010 campaign — then they are going to have to make peace with the prospect of revenue increases that could come from tax reform. Creating a simpler, flatter and broader tax base should be a great opportunity, but it may not square with pledges. Given the deficits we face, it should not be deficit neutral — digging ourselves out of deficits while growing the economy is the challenge we face. The question going forward will be whether governing is as satisfying as grandstanding.
The symbol of the hope behind the vote came in the form of Rep. Gabby Giffords’ return to the House floor for the first time since the assassination attempt in January. A miracle of human endurance and modern medicine, she was a phoenix rising, bringing both sides of the aisle to attention.
It was a moment that spurred a shock of recognition — that as Americans we are more united than divided, and hyper-partisanship distracts us from that deeper reality. It is all the more fitting that Rep. Giffords established a record as a leading centrist Democrat, someone who tried to depolarize debates and build constructive coalitions. That is what it takes to govern in America.
We can’t wait for a tragedy or a disaster or the prospect of default to refocus our elected officials on working together to solve the problems we face. We avoided a self-inflicted catastrophe this time, and now we need to show that we can learn from this searing experience and not repeat it.