If the Deficit Commission Fails, Don't Blame the GOP


After the GOP takes over one or both chambers of Congress, what happens to deficit reduction? Does the road toward more balanced budgets get easier or harder?

Remember, the bipartisan commission established by the president to restore sanity to the budget will release its recommendations in December, a month after the midterm elections, which are expected to be a tidal wave of Red. The commission's recommendations will probably involve a mixture of tax increases and spending cuts. But in a funny bit of timing, the report will drop around the same time Congress will have voted on the Bush tax cuts.

A Republican House will push hard to extend the Bush tax cuts in full, but there isn't much evidence that they'll push for efforts to close that gap with spending cuts. This is partly because Republicans have been coy about spending cut details, and partly because Democrats have been silent on spending cuts. As Ezra Klein writes, "The vehicle for worsening the deficit already exists and has Republican support. The vehicle for reducing the deficit doesn't." Matt Yglesias piles on: "Conservatives don't care about the deficit."

We don't know if they're right about the future, because it's the future. But today, deficit reduction is not a fait accompli, even with unified government under Democratic leadership. The Democrats are in disarray on the Bush tax cuts, with Blue Dog Dems and moderate Senators peeling away from the White House plan to raise taxes on the wealthy. Now look at spending. Nancy Pelosi stacked the deficit commission to protect against Social Security cuts, HuffPo reported. The GOP has been famously short on spending cut details, but so have Democrats. The administration has thought out loud about freezing non-security discretionary spending, but its most significant contribution to deficit reduction was to ask other people to form a commission and tackle the issue outside the political process.

The White House knew Democrats (like Pelosi) would rope off entitlement reform, while Republicans (like Boehner) would rope off tax increases. The independent commission reflects the Washington attitude that deficit reduction can't be handled by elected representatives, no matter who's in charge, and the only way to move forward on painful budget trimmings was to tie everybody together and make them jump, all at once.

The deficit commission was always a Hail Mary, and it's possible -- even probable -- that its recommendations will fail to win support. But this is one you can't peg on Republicans.

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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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