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No Bargain for America

When you compromise between a good plan and a bad plan, you get a less good plan. So what happens when you compromise between two bad plans? We’re about to find out, as Congress this week tries to reconcile deficit reduction blueprints drawn up by House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

That we are now reduced to fallback House and Senate plans reflects the failure of the nation’s political leadership to rise to the occasion and forge a common approach to solving the debt crisis. The road not taken was the “grand bargain” every serious budget analyst knows is substantively and politically the only way to control the debt: trade more tax revenues for cuts in the unsustainable growth of entitlement spending.

While it’s easy to assume a posture of Olympian detachment and blame both sides for this failure of nerve, it’s wrong. The grand bargain died because House Republicans killed it. As President Obama said last night, it was scuttled by the “ideological rigidity” of Tea Party extremists who are trying to dictate national fiscal policy from the House.

Recall that once it was clear that he couldn’t get a “clean” bill raising the debt limit, President Obama decided to go big. That is, he pushed for a big debt reduction package of about $4 trillion, which would stabilize and eventually shrink the debt. That idea appealed to Boehner – at first. But when House GOP freshmen made it clear they would not vote to raise revenues, insisting that our massive deficits be closed through spending cuts alone, Boehner walked away from talks with the President. Not once, but twice.

As liberals ruefully noted, the House GOP’s zero-concessions approach contrasted sharply with Obama’s pliability. First he agreed to trillions of dollars of domestic spending cuts. Then he offered to put entitlements on the table, causing conniptions among the “progressives” who oppose long-overdue reforms in Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. The president endorsed a package that was 3-1 spending cuts over tax revenues. Rather than accept it and declare victory, conservatives demanded unconditional surrender.

So now the spotlight shifts to the Boehner and Reid plans. Both fall well short of what the country needs. Boehner calls for a two-step process: First, Congress would cap discretionary spending and raise the debt ceiling by $1 trillion. Then a bicameral joint committee would be charged with finding another $1.8 trillion in savings. If Congress approves the second tranche, it would lift the debt ceiling by the same amount.

The Reid bill also would cut discretionary spending by nearly $3 trillion over the next decade, and leave revenues untouched. But as critics have rightly pointed out, that includes savings from military spending as the U.S. interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down that have been accounted for already. Nonetheless, Obama last night endorsed Reid’s approach, which has the virtue of extending the debt ceiling until after the next presidential election.

Neither bill, of course, offers a permanent solution to the debt crisis. It’s not even clear that each could pass its respective House of Congress. It’s not hard to imagine Tea Party types balking because the bill doesn’t cut deeply enough, or because they’d rather force the country into default as a way of defunding federal programs. Some Senate liberals are chafing over Reid’s approach, which does not ask the rich to pay higher taxes or even close tax loopholes, thereby putting the entire burden of debt reduction on domestic spending.

In the end, as everyone expects, some kind of package will be cobbled together to avoid a prolonged default. But that means the whole sorry spectacle, replete with dogmatic posturing and politically evasive behavior will drag on into next year.

Photo Credit: Robert Reed Daly

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