Wednesday, December 1, 2010

How Should Dem Pols on the Deficit Commission Play It?

I'm stumped by the politics of the deficit commission, for the Democrats.  I'll lay out the situation, as I see it, and then throw the question open.  

Here's the story.  The commission has put off a final vote to Friday instead of taking a scheduled vote now, given that (according to the NYT) none of the 12 Members of Congress were prepared to vote for the commission plan.  Since that's 12 of the 18 commission members, and 14 votes are needed to pass anything...well, at best that leaves the thing 8 votes short.  Bingo!

So, a commission that's only purpose was to kick the can down the road past the election is now...stalling.  Good fun!  The lame duck Congress has no intention of doing any serious deficit reduction (to the contrary, of course; they're increasing the deficit problem by cutting taxes), and the incoming Congress has even less interest in doing any serious deficit reduction. 

Look, it's important to remember one thing about this deficit commission.  It needs 14 votes.  Six of the 18 members are Republican politicians.  Republican politicians are not going to vote for tax increases.  End of story.  Maybe, maybe, retiring GOP Senator Judd Gregg could have been open to a deficit reduction deal, but the other five?  Not going to happen.

However, this does get to the interesting question, which is how the Democrats should deal with the situation.  Should they try to get a deal they can live with, and vote for it, even though it's doomed? 

On the one hand, supporting the commission report and having the Republicans block it would, one would think, help solidify the idea among those paying attention that Democrats are responsible on the budget and Republicans are not.  Is that worth much?  A little, perhaps.  If elite-level deficit scolds really turned decisively against the GOP, there's a chance that would to some extent be helpful to Democrats.

It's also worth mentioning that while the commission's plan isn't exactly what mainstream liberals would like, it's probably close to a deal that they could live with -- and with Republican votes certainly not available, it's quite possible that Democrats could get quite a few concessions in exchange for their votes.   And most mainstream Democrats do, I think, want to get the deficit down. 

There's also the reality that this is Barack Obama's deficit commission, and it can end in one of two ways: "GOP blocks deficit reduction," or "Obama's commission fails."  I don't want to make too much of one headline, but, you know, that's the situation.

On the other hand, Democrats have spent the last thirty years or so as deficit hawks, and it's hard to see that it's bought them any significant support from elite-level deficit scolds.  Meanwhile, support for the commission plan would open Democrats to charges of raising taxes and cutting spending, neither of which is very popular.  And given the overlap between elite-level deficit scolds and principled nonpartisanship, it's unlikely that the Broders of the world are going to make any decisive partisan turns, no matter how much one party does what they ask for and the other doesn't -- they're far more likely to throw up their hands and blame both sides. 

There's also the frequent liberal complaint that Democrats are too willing to compromise.  If there are to be other rounds of negotiations, liberals certainly wouldn't want to meet halfway between the commission plan and whatever it is that conservatives would go for. 

I think overall that means that Dems on the commission should vote "no" -- but I'm not really sure about that.   I should toss a caveat in somewhere...of course, this is a symbolic vote, not substantive, and we're not talking about anything that's going to make or break the economy or the 2012 elections.  Still, six Democratic Members of Congress have to vote on this thing, one way or another.  What should they do?


  1. They should all vote no because doing anything about the deficit with 9.6% unemployment and extremely low interest rates on Federal debt is insane.

  2. Elite-level deficit scolds are just people who want to cut spending, and the deficit is the cudgel they use for their argument.

    Are there a few people actually serious about the deficit above basic size-of-government/tax rate concerns? Yes. But they're exceeding few in number. People care about taxes and spending. The deficit comes #3 to those things.

  3. On the narrow question here, I agree it's a close call. But since it's a close call, we should probably step back from the narrow question and look at the bigger picture. There's one party that can never be too extreme, in the eyes of the Broderite pundit class, to disqualify itself as a serious party of government. There's another party that can never compromise enough in the eyes of that same class to establish the legitimacy of its policies. There's a president who fetishizes compromise and bipartisanship for their own sake, and almost no prominent politicians who forthrightly say what needs to be said, i.e. the kinds of things what Robert Reich, Paul Krugman and Brad DeLong (and Ron E. above) have been saying -- like, Are you all crazy? Why are you even TALKING about deficits when government credit is high, demand is too low, the output gap is enormous, the national infrastructure is crumbling, and long-term unemployment is worse than it's been since the Great Depression?? What we need are politicians saying "Stop the insanity," and if that job falls to the Dems on the Deficit Commission, so be it.

  4. I agree with with Jeff. There need to be prominent, tv-friendly Democrats who stake out a position well to the "left" of Obama, and need to be willing to hold their ground on the responsible position in order to get anything done at all. The deficit commission was mostly a waste of time. Democrats shouldn't play along unless the Republicans are going to vote for it in equal numbers.

    So--maybe the best outcome would be for people not in Congress (Andy Stern, etc.) to vote for it, while Congressional Dems say that they're not going to vote for something without equal support from the other side.


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