July 25, 2014

In Quest for a Grand Bargain, Lawmakers Can't Skip the Bargaining

Who says that Democrats and Republicans can't reach a grand bargain?

Harry Reid and Paul Ryan seem to have it figured out. If Democrats and Republicans don’t demand compromises from each other, everyone can get along. It’s the perfect political grand bargain: Do nothing.

Unfortunately, that could easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The prospects for a real grand bargain – one that actually makes some headway on solving our fiscal imbalance – are not looking good right now. It is particularly disappointing, however, that already two key members of Congress are simply accepting the gridlocked status quo rather using their leading positions to figure out a better result.

In an interview with the Associated Press (AP), Ryan summed up his view this way: “If we focus on some big, grand bargain then we’re going to focus on our differences and both sides are going to require that the other side compromises some core principle and then we’ll get nothing done.”

That’s a bit like saying elected officials can’t do a grand bargain because it would require a grand bargain.

Oddly, Ryan seems to assume that just one part of a grand bargain, Medicare and Medicaid cuts, can be on the table. “If I can reform entitlement programs where the savings compound annually… that is more valuable for reducing the debt than a one-time spending cut in discretionary spending,” he told AP.

True enough. But how likely is it that Democrats will bargain over their core principles without demanding that Republicans do the same? Not very.

If there were any doubts about this, Harry Reid put them to rest in these comments in an interview with Nevada Public Radio (KNPR): “You keep talking about Medicare and Social Security. Get something else in your brain. Stop talking about that. That is not going to happen this time. There's not going to be a grand bargain."

He added that Republicans “have their mind set on doing nothing, nothing more on revenue, and until they get off that kick, there’s not going to be a grand bargain.”

Again, true enough. But why not at least acknowledge the necessity of controlling federal health care costs and Social Security when these programs, over the next 25 years, will account for all of the projected growth in non-interest (i.e. “primary”) spending measured against the growth of the economy?

Better advice for the budget conference committee came last week from former Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-ND) and Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK), a member of the conference committee.

In a Washington Post op-ed, Conrad observed: “To suggest that Democrats should give up on revenue because it’s a non-starter with many Republicans is like telling Republicans they should give up on entitlement reform because it’s a non-starter with many Democrats. The truth is, both sides need to give a little ground on their must-haves for real progress to be made.”

Cole said on Bloomberg’s Political Capital With Al Hunt, that “the reality is you’re going to have to have a deal here. And a deal means everybody gives something up.”

Finding a path to that deal, difficult as it will be, should be a top priority for Reid and Ryan. As Conrad concluded, “We can do this, but everyone must be prepared to give a little so that our nation can gain a lot.”