Washington Isn't Broken, the Republican Party Is

Democrats have repeatedly sought a compromise deal on the debt. Why blame the whole city for Republican intransigence?


Watching yesterday's Sunday shows was a reminder that, of all the bromides that are popular among D.C. pundits, few are as durable, or pervasive, as moral equivalence. No debt deal means that Washington is broken. Politicians can't govern. Neither side will compromise. As Newark Mayor Cory Booker put it to his fellow members of the "Meet the Press" roundtable, "Americans ... are frustrated by the partisanship being put before progress." But is everybody putting partisanship before progress?

Anyone who studies the federal budget recognizes that two-thirds of it, in the form of "mandatory spending" (Social Security and, especially, Medicare and Medicaid), is what's driving the long-run debt problem in America. The remaining third that is "discretionary spending" (a majority of which is on defense, but which also includes food safety, environmental protection, aid to education, science and medical research, homeland security, et cetera, et cetera) will not grow nearly as fast, and has almost nothing to do with deficits.

And so, when a Democratic president, who cares about discretionary spending, and who knows it's not a significant source of red ink, offers a massive $1 trillion cut to that spending, that is a real compromise. When President Obama also offers $650 billion in entitlement cuts over 10 years -- cuts that would hurt his party's constituents and anger his strongest supporters, that is a real compromise. When the White House offers hundreds of billions less in new revenue than any of the three (rather center-right) bipartisan budget proposals on the table -- indeed, offers almost $4 in spending cuts for every $1 in new revenue -- that is a real compromise.

Democrats should note that the president was so desperate for a deal he went well to the right of the proposals to which rock-ribbed Republicans like Sen. Tom Coburn and former senator Pete Domenici had agreed. Republicans should note that nobody is talking about higher tax rates, but about eliminating loopholes, subsidies, and deductions, and doing fundamental tax reform in a way that conservative economists have advocated for decades.

(Incidentally, a broader tax base coupled with lower rates is just the latest in a long line of initiatives that was a good conservative idea until the moment President Obama embraced it. From "cap and trade" to fight climate change, to the individual mandate as part of health-care reform, these are ideas that began at think tanks like the Heritage Foundation, were supported by Republicans like Bob Dole, Newt Gingrich, and Mitt Romney, and became unacceptable socialism when adopted by this White House.)

The truth is that because Speaker Boehner cannot move on taxes (either because his caucus won't let him, or he believes in cutting taxes to pre-New Deal levels), there is no deal. Because Speaker Boehner linked the debt ceiling to a deal, America is on the brink of a default that would impose a stealth tax increase -- in the form of higher interest rates -- on every American. And the country's top priorities (initiatives to promote more jobs and faster growth) have been ignored by a Congress obsessed with shrinking government. Does this mean politicians can't govern? Or that everybody puts politics first? No, it does not. President Obama and Sen. Coburn could make a deal today. This is not a Washington problem; it is a House Republican problem. And commentators who are obsessed with balance should remember good journalism is not "Republicans say the sky is blue, Democrats say the sky is red, experts disagree." It is reporting -- without fear or favor -- what is actually happening. It means substituting moral clarity for moral equivalence.

Image credit: Susan Walsh/AP