August 22, 2014

Can't Get There From Here

The punch line of an old joke aptly describes the status of budget negotiations in Washington: you can’t get there from here. It’s not the “there” that is the problem; it’s the “here.”

Broad bipartisan consensus exists on two points. The first is that the debt limit must soon be raised to avoid a default in one form or another. The second is that current fiscal policy cannot be sustained. Missing from the equation is any solid evidence that political leaders are prepared to do what is necessary to solve either problem.

Republicans have chained themselves to a rigid negotiating position, insisting that there can be no tax increase regardless of the need or on whom the burden would fall. They argue that even a deficit reduction plan heavily tilted toward spending cuts, such as the framework recommended by the President’s bipartisan fiscal commission (Bowles-Simpson), must be rejected outright.

Democrats say they are more reasonable because they believe that everything -- spending cuts and tax increases -- should be “on the table.” However, they have unanimously rejected four budget plans in the Senate, including the President’s official budget, without proposing anything of their own. They are clearly content to let the House Republican budget twist slowly in the wind while maintaining the safety of silence.

Picture a stone wall negotiating with a blank slate. It is hard to imagine how this can lead to a fruitful negotiation. 

Up until recently, the best hope for a breakthrough was the Senate’s “Gang of Six.” This bipartisan group has been trying to reach agreement on a plan based on the recommendations of the Bowles-Simpson commission. However, with the defection of Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK), a key conservative, the group is down to five and the remaining members seem unwilling to go forward on that basis.

Attention has now turned to the working group of congressional leaders headed by Vice President Joe Biden. They have been meeting regularly and progress has apparently been made on finding acceptable spending cuts of up to $1 trillion. While falling short of what would be needed to stabilize the debt, it would at least be a serious first step.

And yet, familiar obstacles stand in the way of a more far-reaching agreement.

Vice President Biden says that taxes will be part of any solution, but Republicans insist that taxes are “off the table.” They can’t both be right. 

The treacherous waters of Medicare politics will also block agreement if Republicans remain fixated on the House Budget Committee’s version of “premium support” and Democrats view opposition to that plan as the key to electoral victory in 2012.

A bold stroke of political leadership is needed to break the impasse. 

Perhaps this will come from the Biden group. Perhaps the Senate “Gang” will yet ride to the rescue. Perhaps some other group will emerge to show the way. What is clear is that the status quo is unsustainable and that solutions are unattainable without compromise.

That’s where we are and you can’t get there from here.

This blog entry has been cross-posted on The American Square -- a new community site devoted to enabling respectful, multi-partisan conversation about policy and politics.