Deficit Commission Wins a Majority, Fails Its Charter -- and Still Might Succeed

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Despite winning a 11-7 majority approval for its bold plan to reduce debt, the president's deficit commission fell three votes short of the super-majority required to send the plan to Congress.

Five of the six non-elected appointees voted for the plan. But among the 12 elected representatives on the panel, the vote was an even six-to-six.

To their credit, senators -- who supported the plan by a margin of 5-1 -- showed surprising judiciousness in their approach to the plan. Republican Sen. Tom Coburn gave a clear-eyed speech about the need to sacrifice ideology in order to make a downpayment on our future. Despite his stiff resistance to tax increases, he agreed to support a plan that would have raised effective tax rates dramatically on the top one percent while slashing the top quintile's Social Security checks by up to 20 percent in 2050. Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin said despite the proposal's controversial cuts to Social Security, he still supported the overall vision.

In the House, the only representative to support the proposal was also the only representative not seeking reelection in two years because of a November loss: Rep. John Spratt Jr. (Perhaps, if you know what it looks like when short-term election cycles run against long-term national priorities, here is your snapshot.)

Most baffling, perhaps, was GOP Rep. Paul Ryan's insistence that the plan did not go far enough to reform health care. The commission's proposal incorporated Ryan's premium support idea by using the federal workforce as a guinea pig for more aggressive health care reforms. In addition, it doubled down on the Affordable Care Act's delivery system tweaks and and limited health care cost growth to GDP-plus-one-percent after 2020 -- essentially forcing the government to cap Medicare and Medicaid payments. Still, Ryan insisted that without declawing Obama's health care law or moving to a voucher system more aggressively, he could not support the plan.

Ultimately, the deficit commission was both a success and a failure. It succeeded in putting deficit reduction center stage and managing to get half its elected representatives to vote for a plan that combined liberal and conservative policies that could be Kryptonite for any reelection campaign. It also succeeded, almost incredibly, in getting a classic liberal, Dick Durbin, and a classic conservative, Tom Coburn, to join hands on a plan to effective reform the entire budget. In an age where a $20 billion unemployment benefits bill gets stuck in Congress, the idea that a $4 trillion bill of pain could receive majority support in the commission is an achievement.

And yet, as a matter of technicality, the commission failed. There will be no bill sent to Congress. There will be no vote to restore sanity to the budge ... or will there?

Fourteen Democrats have now signed a letter asking Congress and the White House to move forward on a real law to reduce the deficit. Rep. Ryan and Sen. Crapo said they would like to incorporate some of the commission's ideas in their own legislation.

"I think we've changed the conversation with this bipartisan vote" a senior commission official told me. "It's no longer a question of whether whether we need to do deficit reduction or not. Now it's all about how do we do this."

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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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