Hell Freezing Over? Washington Post Smells a Compromise on Deficit

Sen. Tom Coburn is a conservative's conservative. He's the kind of guy who would sooner sign a bill requiring chain stores to offer alternative French translations than agree to higher taxes.

So it should come as a considerable surprise that he's saying things like this in the Washington Post: "I'm open to everything if it gets us where we need to go. This is going to require compromise, even from someone as conservative as me."

The president's deficit commission has been maligned as an unforced error and skewered for its chairmen's plan. Smart money is still on the commission to come up short. But against all odds, the contours of something resembling compromise might be coming into focus.

Here's what that could look like:

Big cuts at the Pentagon. Higher taxes, including those on home ownership and health care. Smaller Social Security checks and higher Medicare premiums. A debate is raging over the size and shape of those changes, particularly the wisdom of cutting Social Security benefits.

The good news about these compromises is that they are compromises. Cutting Social Security and the Pentagon budget are parallel blows to liberal and conservative priorities. Limiting the mortgage interest deduction and employer health subsidy will sting for homeowners, the real estate industry, employers, and health providers. That's a wide swath of pain. And that's the point. In the zero-sum world of Washington politics, a bill that hurts everybody relatively equally hurts nobody so much.

The bad news is that a proposal to injure everybody is a proposal to injure everybody. And that hurts. The case for deficit reduction is far-sighted, the stuff of decades-long changes. The case for reelection is near-sighted, the stuff of 24-hour news cycle thrusts and parries. Just as voters engage in hyperbolic discounting, valuing immediate gratification above slow-burn benefits, Congress is instructed, by law and survival instinct, to think in two- and six-year cycles. That's why it's hard to reach a painful theoretical compromise and even harder to follow through.

It's promising that Democrats' and Republicans' deficit plans overlap. But deficit skeptics are right that it won't matter until somebody finds a sweet spot between representatives' deficit-busting ideas and their self-interest.