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Anyone who lived though the budget wars of the 1980s and 1990s has to wonder what President Obama and members of Congress are talking about when they say the only way to make real progress on the deficit is with a bipartisan commission.
Politicians made huge fiscal headway with significant deficit-reduction bills in 1990, 1993 and 1997 -- and in 1983 with fixes to Social Security, which as Henry Aaron pointed out yesterday in this space was less the product of a commission than of a summit between President Reagan and House Speaker Tip O’Neill. Especially in 1990 and 1993, the politics were excruciating, and the reward for doing that necessary work was too often demagoguery and terrible political damage. The key in all four instances was presidential leadership, which is notably lacking now. Leaving aside the agreed-on need for fiscal stimulus in the short run, President Obama talks about deficit reduction, but doesn’t do much.
But before deficit hawks beat him up for lack of spine, imagine what would happen if Obama tried serious, Democrats-only deficit reduction or attempted to convene a budget summit with Republicans today to talk about putting Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid on sounder footing. After health reform, cap and trade, TARP and the stimulus bill, does anyone seriously think that would go anywhere? And is there a Republican out there who could buck party orthodoxy on taxes? And bring anyone else with him or her?
Looking back on the successful efforts in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the ingredient that’s missing today is the combination of embarrassment and desperation that drove summitry then. The looming bankruptcy of Social Security in 1983, the repeated failure to meet Gramm-Rudman deficit-reduction targets in 1990 and the shared desire by President Clinton and the Newt Gingrich-led Republicans to show they could govern in 1997 (Clinton’s voluntary, Democrats-only effort in 1993 is a monument to responsible governance, but that’s another story). Alas, embarrassment and desperation aren’t acute enough right now to provoke action.
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George Hager is a member of the USA Today editorial page staff