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Baucus slams the Conrad-Gregg deficit commission

baucusstern.JPG

Matt Yglesias beats me to Stan Collender's post on Max Baucus's pithy slam of the Conrad-Gregg deficit commission:

If the Chairman and Ranking Republican Member of the Budget Committee are in such broad agreement on their goals, why don’t they just skip the commission and go straight to their recommendation? That is exactly why Congress created the budget resolution and the reconciliation bill.

The politics here is that Baucus doesn't want the Finance Committee bypassed. But that doesn't obviate the substance of Baucus's critique. The answer you'd want to give to this question is that Congress is broken and polarized and incapable of making hard decisions and so we need a special process that sidesteps some of the veto points. But the Conrad-Gregg Commission is not, as far as I can tell, that process. Instead, it adds new veto points.

Yglesias suggests this is because Conrad and Gregg "have no real intention of reducing the deficit." I don't really agree with that. If they have no real concern for this issue, then it's not clear why they're spending so much time on it. Gregg, for one, is actually retiring, so it's not obvious what interest he'd have in a kabuki commission.

The more appealing hypothesis, I think, is that Gregg and Conrad are too close to the Congress to have a really clear sense of its dysfunction. You saw this amidst the Gang of Six, too, where no one in the room seemed quite able to believe that the personal relationships of the actors couldn't overcome the centrifugal forces of our politics. "The dynamic in that room was very positive and very constructive," Conrad told me after the negotiations fell apart. "We kept making progress until we just sort of ran out of time. I felt we were getting to the point where we were reasonably close. Several more weeks, and there might have been an agreement."

I have no doubt that he believed that, but I also have no doubt that he was wrong. As he qualified a moment later, "But that's outside the political discussions." Nothing, however, is really outside the political discussions. The idea of this deficit commission seems like the idea behind the Gang of Six: It's theoretically insulated from politics, and thus offers an opportunity for people of goodwill to come together and do the hard work of the country. And that will be fine right until the agreement is struck and released into the wilds of the political discussions, at which point it will die.

I want to make one other point on the right way to think about deficit commissions, but that'll have to wait for a coming post.

Photo credit: Charles Dharapak/AP.

By Ezra Klein  |  December 11, 2009; 1:29 PM ET
Categories:  Budget  
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Comments

"The answer you'd want to give to this question is that Congress is broken and polarized "

This is it. Democrats are being what they have always been, ornery contrarians. There has never been a fully united dem caucus, even during the decades they had majorities, and it seemed to be more prominent when there was a dem president.

It is eternally frustrating, but at the end of the day I am glad they are this way. Rather than dangerous lockstepping repubs are prone to.

What is different now, is a completely intransigent GOP, that is dominated by southern conservatives that is distilling itself daily into the pristine wingnut. Any efforts at bipartisanship by any member must face the wrath of right wing ideologues out in the countryside, such as Limbaugh, Beck, Malkin et al.

This is what is making the seemingly terminal dysfunction, especially of the Senate. And there doesn't seem to be any relief in sight.

When you have even a 40 member GOP Senate that are drawn and quartered to oppose any significant legislation unless it is written by them, you have gridlock on steroids.

And dems being dems will always have a few dissidents, and it only takes one to halt the show.

Not to mention our media's interminable false equivlilence to the detriment of unbiased fact finding and delivery of those facts to the public, we are in a race to the bottom of American politics, if we haven't reached it yet.

Posted by: arnold104 | December 11, 2009 1:48 PM | Report abuse

Ezra,
The real reason for the Conrad-Gregg Commission is to play politics around any second stimulus. They want to signal to the media and the White House that there is "broad, bipartisan consensus" around deficeit reduction strategies and that that should be Congress's next big challenge after health care. Not a jobs-bill, not more stimulus, etc.

Posted by: ctown_woody | December 11, 2009 2:01 PM | Report abuse

Ezra,

Analysis of the budget commission proposal may be helped by leafing through the following paper I published early this year in the Public Administration Review: "The 'Ball of Confusion' in Federal Budgeting: A Shadow Agenda for Deliberative Reform of the Budget Process."

A link is at:
http://userpages.umbc.edu/%7Emeyers/ballofconfusionPAR.pdf

Roy Meyers
Professor of Political Science
UMBC

Posted by: meyers1 | December 11, 2009 2:02 PM | Report abuse

I disagree completely. By the same logic he's using against Gregg and Conrad, Baucus himself could introduce a deficit reduction bill that could pass with 50 votes through reconciliation. So why doesn't he? And why haven't any other Democrats done so? Well, the politics are all wrong.

For simplicity's sake, I'll focus on the three big players of deficit reduction: health care, new taxes, and social security. Well, we know far too well what's wrong with the politics of the first one. As for the second, new taxes, could the Democrats pass a new tax? Theoretically, they could. But who in their right mind would do so in the middle of a recession and in such a politically toxic climate? As for the last one, we could do some real good with slight adjustments to social security. But Democrats don't REALLY want to do this. At best, it's their bargaining chip, their concession in exchange for other deficit reducing strategies.

So we have a case where health care is a mess, Democrats don't want to pass new taxes, and Democrats don't want to cut social security without getting something in return. Thus, the only hope we have is that a broadly bipartisan commission can agree to some kind of exchange wherein Democrats will adjust Social Security in exhange for a VAT or other taxes or cutting the War/Defense budget, and most importantly the political cover to do so.

Is this likely? No. But a bipartisan vote is the only chance we have.

Posted by: CarlosXL | December 11, 2009 2:33 PM | Report abuse

Color me unexcited about the idea of an unaccountable commission filled with members of our elites who get to impose their ideas about deficit reduction (ie screw Social Security and Medicare) without having to deal with the unwashed public.

Posted by: redscott | December 11, 2009 3:02 PM | Report abuse

As far as Gregg's interest, I wouldn't be surprised if he'd like to be appointed to the commission.

With the elections of 2006 and 2008, he announced his retirement while looking at the risk of losing his seat in 2010 to a Dem. Once he made his announcement, and took his flight of fancy with the Cabinent appointment, it was a little too late to back out (though plenty of people have gone back on similar things). It's unlikely that Gregg wants to retire to the farm.

There's lobbying roles for his corporate pals. And there's commissions like this, which are always open to lobyists. Given how fractured Congress is, and if he and Conrad had been able to give teeth to this commission, it likely would have been packed with fellow deficit hawks like the two of them. Placed on it as the GOP leader of a "bipartisan" commission, Gregg actually would be more likely to have an impact on putting his dreams of hacking to bits the entitlement programs that he thinks are bloated.

Conrad isn't a fan of entitlement programs either. He does have what he sees as "solutions" (similar hacking away like Gregg), and he's flashed it publically over the years. But he also knows that he's got issues getting it through Congress because of (i) other pesky Dems, and (ii) taking a machette to Medicare and Social security is seen as political sucide by enough people in Congress that it's hard to pass.

I think we're wildly underestimating these two, and their pals like Bayh and DiFi when we say they're gutless and don't have a plan. They clearly do, and they're charting ones that:

* try to work around the blocks in Congress

* put this onto the plate of a Dem Administration and in a sense force them to take ownership and the lead on it

The second is especially crafty because the White House is staffed through the roof with deficit hawks from Larry on down, while also have a GOP Defense Secretary who'll protect the Defense Budget from getting drawn into Deficit Reduction debates.

People probably need to recall how the Clinton Admin got draw into Deficit Reduction and how well entitlements came out in that process.

For all we point out how stupid these folks are for the lies they tell, for the unsupoorted statements they make, they're extremely smart in playing the game in which they win over and over again.

We'll we lose, over and over again.

Irony of Ezra's post?

We'll eventually see Baucas playing a role in "deficit reduction", and not being a friend of entitlements.

John

Posted by: toshiaki | December 11, 2009 3:18 PM | Report abuse

The reason we can't reduce our deficits is not just because of political cowardice on the part of our politicians. Sure there is that too, but the real reason is because our Congress is made up of the American people.

And guess what? America doesn't *want* to reduce health care spending! America doesn't *want* to reduce social security spending! America doesn't *want* to see any new taxes!

Well, neither do America's representatives. They, like us, don't want to have to pay the bill. That simple.

Posted by: MyrtleParker | December 11, 2009 3:20 PM | Report abuse

It is like we as Americans like the *idea* of paying the bill. We like the *idea* of paying it because we know that sometime in the hazy future our power will go off in the middle of winter if we don't. But that is always the future.

When someone suggests we actually take out our wallets, open the folder, extract some dollar bills, then hand them over to someone else... everyone freaks out!

"There must be another way to pay our bills without having to use our own money!"

Posted by: MyrtleParker | December 11, 2009 3:23 PM | Report abuse

Here's the problem.

1. When the wealthy class want so-called "free-trade" agreements, they outlaw the filibuster, and pass a law enacting these "agreements" with NO amendments or filibusters allowed.

2. When the wealthy class wants to spend billions on no win wars, the same thing occurs, no filibuster allowed.

3. Now, when they want to cut social security, it's really simple. Abolish the filibuster for this one law, and then outlaw amendments and pass the bill.

4. BUT, if it's medical care for Americans: Then, the wealthy class wants filibusters, and amendments.

5. Jobs for Americans? Stimulus? Infrastructure repairs? Then, it's filibusters and amendments.

Does anyone else see a pattern here?

If it's for the wealthy class, NO AMENDMENTS, NO FILIBUSTER.

If it's for the middle class, then, of course, FILUBUSTER and AMEND.

Question: Which side are you on? That question will decide your opinion on these types of issues.

Posted by: santafe2 | December 11, 2009 4:15 PM | Report abuse

I thought Ezra was supposed to be a policy/economic analysis wonk. It appears he is just a partisan political apparachik instead. There is no disfunction in Congress if the policies are right.

A good policy will get consensus. Sometimes it takes a while to get there, but that if fine. The system actually works better when our leaders do not conduct business with haste. They then make mistakes.

Posted by: lancediverson | December 11, 2009 4:28 PM | Report abuse

I think MyrtleParker is right. We live in a representative democracy. So if our government is fiscally irresponsible, maybe it's because a majority of the public is at heart fiscally irresponsible.

Just once, when someone complains about the debt, I'd like to hear an elected official say "I think it's a problem too--and what are you willing to do to help solve it?" Because government isn't just about what we want; it's what we're willing to do together to achieve what we want. And if most people are willing to do nothing, then it should be no surprise what the results will be.

Politicians need to remind us that, like it or not, we are ultimately responsible for our government. I think that this inescapable connection has been masked over ever since Reagan decried government as "the problem," portraying it as this alien entity divorced from public influence and control. It's easy to run against "the government" if people are convinced they're not responsible for it, but it's not a sustainable form of governance because it's built on an untruth. Government isn't the problem, or the solution. It's what we make it, because its power ultimately rests with the people.

Our politicians can't be expected to make hard decisions unless enough of their constituents are willing to back them up with their own actions. Politicians need to have the leadership to remind us of our responsibility, and we have to be adult enough to accept it. It's not "the government's" debt, it's our debt. "The government" doesn't tax us; we tax ourselves for the programs we say we want. And when enough of us are willing to make those hard choices, then we'll have a return to fiscal sanity. And no "commission" will be able to do it for us.

Posted by: dasimon | December 11, 2009 11:50 PM | Report abuse

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