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Sit down, honey, let's kill some time

By Dylan Matthews

I'm really curious as to why David Brooks thinks his deficit reduction process will work:

Now some people think their elected officials are so rotten that only an unelected commission can save us. Snobs. The history of commissions is the history of failure. Stuart M. Butler of the Heritage Foundation and Henry J. Aaron of the Brookings Institution argue compellingly that it is simply impossible in a democracy to rewrite the social contract without popular consent. Commissions are fine, but they have to be embedded in a broader democratic process.

The way to do that is to break free from the polarized committee structure. Invite a dozen handpicked senators and House members and stick them in a room three times a week for six months.

After they’ve come up with a debt-reduction plan, have them send it up in secret to the presidential deficit commission, which President Obama was smart enough to create.

In some ways, this reminds me of John McCain's infamous proposal for brokering peace in Iraq: "sit the Shiites and the Sunnis down and say, 'Stop the [expletive].' " Does Brooks really think the reason, say, Max Baucus and Chuck Grassley can't agree on deficit reduction matters is reflective of the fact that they haven't sat down together and talk about these things enough? Is it possible that these things are intractable because there is serious disagreement about what the government's priorities ought to be? The secrecy of the committee wouldn't help; whatever it proposes would eventually have to come up for a vote, and its members would obviously take political plausibility into account when formulating their proposal, rather than simply creating the ideal plan that Good Politicians would think up free of political constraints. There's no reason to think the final product would be any less messy and full of compromises than a bill created through normal legislative procedures.

What's more, there's something great about a proposal for making deficit commissions more democratic that relies on a secret panel making major policy decisions out of public view. Democratic accountability must mean something very different to Brooks than it does to most people.

-- Dylan Matthews is a student at Harvard and a researcher at The Washington Post.

By Washington Post editor  |  April 2, 2010; 9:17 AM ET
Categories:  Congress  
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Actually, our last major successful effort on deficit reduction occurred as a result of a partisan vote. Amazing that some of these folks forget the basic facts.

Posted by: gonzosnose | April 2, 2010 10:34 AM | Report abuse

The answer to your question is that David Brooks believes what he is paid to believe.

The first Mayor Daley in Chicago defined an honest politician as one who "stayed" bought.

By this definition --and absolutely no other --David Brooks can be seen as an honest man.

Posted by: tc125231 | April 2, 2010 11:02 AM | Report abuse

This is my totally impossible dream for how we could find consensus on reducing the deficit. We need a creative public process to break the impasse in Washington, otherwise Dems will never agree to entitlement cuts and the GOP will never agree to tax raises.

As a city planner there are a lot of new interactive tools (like keypad polling, most famously used in the post-Katrina rebuilding process) that we use to get feedback from the public and also educate the public because they force people to get engaged, get beyond platitudes, and get serious about solving the problem. My impossible dream is that they do a nationwide process using these tools to get public input on how to reduce the budget deficit. The biggest problem right now is that people don't understand what we spend most of our money on (defense, medicare/medicaid, and social security). They aren't educated on the problem and therefore think some magical solution can be found, where government spending is cut without it hurting their own pocketbooks.

A public process would force people to think seriously about the problem. It would involve huge public meetings in every region of the country, where everyone had a voting keypad in their hand.

First round of meetings: have presentations on the basic contours of the budget situation and get basic public input.

Second round of meetings: create several scenarios based on the public input from the first round. These scenarios would roughly be 1.All reductions in spending 2.Mix of reductions in spending and tax raises 3.All tax raises. There could be more scenarios but you want to keep it somewhat simple. Have people vote on their preferred scenario using keypad polling. The huge advantage of keypad polling is it lets the Broderian silent majority have a voice without getting drowned out by the shouters on the political fringes.

Third meetings: bring back specific policy options based on the preferred scenario, so people can see how it would effect their lives.

My guess is that if you seriously engaged people you would end up with option #2 being the majority opinion. Hopefully that would give Congress the cover to act.

Posted by: nathanlindquist | April 2, 2010 11:26 AM | Report abuse

as gonzosnose rightly alludes too, resolving the deficit is actually quite easy: increase taxes to 1990s levels and institute paygo, and over time, the deficit goes away.

and that's before we even get to the notion of cutting defense spending so that we are only spending obscene amounts of money in that category....

Posted by: howard16 | April 2, 2010 11:34 AM | Report abuse

Thanks for the Sleater-Kinney reference. Ezra has many fine attributes, but he scores low on references to girl-punk.

Posted by: unclevinny | April 2, 2010 1:13 PM | Report abuse

The only deficit reduction process that is going to work is when they stop buying our bonds.

Posted by: staticvars | April 4, 2010 12:12 AM | Report abuse

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