The Best Way to Guarantee Something Will Fail Is to Call It a 'Grand Bargain'

But Obama's latest policy probably doesn't even qualify for the name.
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Reuters

It's like clockwork -- which is good, because nothing else about the nation's budgeting process seems to work these days: If it's a late summer in the Obama era, it's time to talk about a "grand bargain" on spending that's almost certain to go nowhere.

(Linguistic aside: Perhaps it's telling that the origin of the phrase is borrowed from foreign policy. It used to be that Grand Bargains were reserved for negotiations with U.S. enemies (or at the very least delicate, multilateral trade agreements with frenemies). Now it's a term for battles between Democrats and Republicans; or rather, between the Democratic executive and Republican legislators.)

One can trace the rising and falling fortunes of the grand bargain using Google Trends: 

Here's the chronology to match that timeline:

May 2009: The phrase first bubbles up not in the context of spending -- this is barely 100 days into Obama's term, of course, and the Tea Party and the vogue for spending reduction are but a glimmer in Grover Norquist's eye -- but the environment. In a profile of White House budget boss Peter Orszag, Ryan Lizza reports: 

Obama’s White House is filled with former members of Congress and congressional staffers. They are legislative strategists and dealmakers, and these days they often use the phrase “grand bargain” when asked how they expect to achieve their ambitious agenda. The senior White House official told me that they were exploring an energy deal that would include a “serious” and “short-term” increase in domestic production—perhaps opening up for oil exploration places like the waters off the coast of California—that would appease the “Drill, baby, drill” crowd, while also adopting a cap-and-trade plan that could take effect one or two (or more) years after 2012, which is when Obama’s current plan would start. 

Setting a precedent for every grand bargain to come, the push for a climate deal collapses ignominiously in July after Harry Reid decides he doesn't have enough votes to pass the bill.

December 2010: A commission created by President Obama and led by Alan Simpson and Erksine Bowles, convened to find a master plan for cutting the national deficit, reaches its final conclusion. The report is intended to give Congress and the White House a template for a grand bargain on spending, taxation, and entitlements. Naturally, the commission fails to reach the required supermajority to approve the plan and send it on to Congress.

March 2011: It's spring in Washington, and there are grand bargains in the air. Brian Beutler reports on March 1: "President Obama offered the governors of all states a grand bargain on Monday: Set up working, affordable, universal health care systems in your states in the next three years and we’ll unburden you from the requirements of the health care law." The proposal, sponsored by Senators Ron Wyden, a Democrat, and Scott Brown, a Republican, dies. By the end of the month, it's on to the next grand bargain. "A bipartisan majority of the U.S. Senate called on President Barack Obama to lead a broad effort to slash the nation’s debt through spending cuts and tax increases as part of negotiations on this year’s budget," Bloomberg reports. "A letter to Obama today signed by 64 senators said 'comprehensive deficit-reduction measures are imperative' and the president’s leadership is vital."

July 2011: By the heat of summer, the nation's debt ceiling is barreling into view. Despite the Senate letter in March, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell attacks "the credibility of President Barack Obama’s efforts to forge a 'grand bargain' of spending cuts and tax increases, saying the president himself was an obstacle to an agreement on the debt." A group of senators, the Gang of Six, has been working on its own grand bargain, but the team disbands, unable to reach any sort of deal. Ultimately, negotiations break down and there's no agreement; Matt Bai wrote the definitive tick-tock on the collapse. Instead, Washington reaches a Faustian bargain: Republicans agree to raise the debt ceiling, avoiding a catastrophic national default, while retaining the opportunity to record their objections. In return, Democrats agree to establish a bipartisan "supercommittee" that will come together to decide on a series of budget cuts. To force the small group to agree, both parties create the "sequester," a set of deep, indiscriminate budget cuts affecting pet causes on both sides, that will take effect if there's no deal.

November 2012: As the clock winds down on the super committee, it becomes clear that members won't reach a deal, both parties being much happier to swallow the supposedly intolerable sequester than agree to the other side's demands. That, combined with the scheduled expiration of tax cuts instituted during the George W. Bush Administration, creates a "fiscal cliff" and sets off another panic and furious round of negotiations. Once again, Washington flirts with a grand bargain but goes home with what it can get, which is another piecemeal solution: tax increases on high earners and postponed sequestration. So once again, no grand bargain.

July 2013: That brings us to the present day. Tuesday morning, Reuters reported Obama would push for yet another grand bargain during a speech in Tennessee. There's a catch: It's not really a grand bargain, at least not the way it's been used in recent years. Instead, it's just a corporate-tax simplification (lower overall rate, fewer loopholes) that would generate a one-time revenue bump, to be plowed back into mix of projects, including infrastructure, community-college education, and more. "Senior administration officials said Obama is not giving up on a big deficit-cutting package, but given that no agreement appears on the horizon, he is offering a new idea to try to follow through on his 2012 campaign promises to help the middle class," Reuters reports.

In a pretty good sign that this deal -- grand or not -- isn't going anywhere either, Speaker John Boehner's press secretary promptly announced that his office had heard about the deal the same place everyone else did: the news.

Still, the Obama proposal offers two essential morals. First, the term "grand bargain" has been devalued into almost total irrelevance, so that it really just means any proposal. And second, anything called a grand bargain is almost certainly destined for the scrap heap.

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David A. Graham

David Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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