Breaking: The Senate is Still Broken

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Sens. Kent Conrad and Judd Gregg are busy planning an utterly hopeless bipartisan commission to work on our longterm debt. Meanwhile, by not taking up the estate tax, which expires for one year after December 31, the Senate seems prepared to give up at least $20 to $30 billion of tax revenue. In the context of a $1.4 trillion debt, maybe that doesn't look like much. In the context of a political system that is physically incapable of raising taxes or meaningfully cutting spending, it's still $20 to $30 billion.


Earlier this month, Conrad and Gregg opposed raising the debt ceiling -- the legal limit on the total debt the country is allowed to issue, now at $12 trillion -- unless the Senate established their bipartisan commission.

Gregg, Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., and about 12 other Senators have pledged to oppose a debt limit increase unless Senate Democratic leaders agree to try to establish a commission that would make recommendations to reduce the deficit.

Conrad Thursday reiterated his commitment to his position. He said he has had recent discussions on it with OMB Director Peter Orszag and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and met with Reid Wednesday evening.

But Conrad and Gregg's commission guidelines specifically require supermajorities to pass in the House and Senate. At a time when Republican House members won't even vote for bank regulation reform, it should strike Gregg and Conrad as wildly unlikely that enough of them would vote with a Democratic majority to produce 67 percent margins in the House and Senate. This bipartisan commission seems strangely -- almost sinisterly -- designed to fail. I say sinisterly because it would give Conrad and Gregg all sorts of political capital for "trying" to save the budget without having to actually pass any hard sacrifices. If we're going to hold our federal spending hostage, it should be for a much better reason.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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