A Deal on Deficit Reduction? Get Serious

A Deal on Deficit Reduction? Get Serious

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Fellow Capital Exchange blogger Larry Haas has tried valiantly in two posts in the last couple of weeks to persuade us to be optimistic – or at least not suicidally pessimistic -- about the prospects for deficit reduction, suggesting that the political parties might be able to put aside their differences and make progress on the deficit next year, just as they did in the 1980s and 1990s.

Oh, please. I usually agree with Larry, but I think he's got this one completely wrong. I wish I could be an optimist, because this issue grows more urgent every day. And because, among other things, we should be embarrassed that France and Britain are making the sort of serious efforts to get their fiscal houses in order that we ought to be, and making our democracy look pathetically incapable.

Here are three reasons why Larry’s wrong:

History. Larry says there’s a precedent, a sort of golden era in the 1980s and early 1990s when the politics was about as ugly as it is today, but when “presidents, congressional leaders, and rank-and-file members … set aside their anger and worked within and across party lines, passing several rounds of deficit-cutting legislation.”

Huh? We must have been living on different planets. Sure there was some bipartisanship, but too often for things that made the deficit worse, not better, such as cutting taxes. President Reagan's 1981 deficit-enlarging tax cuts sailed through Congress with the help of dozens of conservative Democrats who in part were either cowed by Reagan's immense popularity or looking for a little something in exchange for their votes, or both. Then-Rep. John Breaux, D-La., traded a deal for Louisiana sugar for his vote for the Reagan tax cuts and  famously quipped: "My vote can't be bought -- but it can be rented." (One more Breaux story: When a House leader angrily called him "a cheap whore" for cutting deals for his vote, Breaux shot back: "That's not true -- I'm not cheap." Breaux used to tell these stories on himself, with great glee. There was a guy who knew how to get things done.)

OK, the sort of productive bipartisanship Larry is talking about did occur a couple of years later in 1983, with the Greenspan Commission's Social Security fix. But that happened only after centrist Republicans and Democrats excluded their own extremists from secret negotiations, and Democratic House Speaker Tip O'Neill and President Reagan worked out the final bargain. I’m trying to imagine House GOP leader John Boehner and Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell cutting a deal with President Obama that included tax increases (as would have to happen for a significant deficit-reduction deal). They’d have to go into witness protection.

The remarkable deficit-reduction deal in 1990 began in bipartisan fashion, but then Newt Gingrich and conservative House Republicans rebelled, killed the deal and threw the process into chaos. Democrats resurrected a plan more to their liking, but that helped doom Bush’s presidency and propel Gingrich to leadership of a Republican House after the 1994 elections. What's the lesson here for partisan hardliners? Bipartisanship? Hah!

I'm assuming that when Larry says bipartisanship occurred in the "early 1990s," he means President Clinton's 1993 budget deal. But that episode is the best proof that Larry’s wrong. Republicans boycotted the entire enterprise over tax increases. The Clinton deal got not a single GOP vote and barely passed. In 1997 a GOP leadership bruised by the disastrous 1995-96 government shutdown agreed to a bipartisan budget deal. But it was a joke compared to the big 1990 and 1993 packages, producing little real savings.

Constituents. It would be nice to think that voters really want Congress to compromise and get things done. Alas, one of this year’s most depressing polls was a recent survey from National Journal and Pew Research National Journal/Pew poll on compromise that asked people whom they admired more -- politicians who make compromises or those who refuse to make deals. Here are the numbers for those who say they prefer "political leaders who stick to their positions without compromise":

Republicans:                62%
Independents:             53%
Democrats:                  39%

As National Journal’s Major Garrett wrote, “This is further evidence that the current political atmosphere is not merely contentious, but hostile to any hope of negotiated settlements …”