Another Debt Commission? Really?

There is a grand tradition in Washington — which is followed by both parties, at various times — of avoiding big and politically-delicate problems. This tradition used to be called the “blue-ribbon commission,” although for some reason the “blue-ribbon” part isn’t used much anymore. But whatever you call it, this political dodge is created for one purpose and one purpose alone: to waste time.

To the best of my knowledge, no commission (blue-ribbon or otherwise bedecked) has ever come up with a solution to anything which has been thus implemented by the politicians (again, of either party) to solve a big problem (although you could make an argument for the base-closing commission, I guess). But virtually all of these commissions have succeeded wildly on their main objective of wasting as much time as possible.

So it comes as no surprise, really, that John Boehner has decided to punt the hard work of debt reduction to yet another commission. This time, he promises, the committee will have some teeth — both in the form of triggers hanging over the group’s head, and in the fact that Congress will vote on whatever they come up with, without being able to change the plan at all. We’re supposed to be impressed by all of this, somehow.

Forgive me if I’m not impressed, Speaker Boehner. Because I’ve seen this movie before, and I know how it’s going to turn out. Republicans will refuse to raise one thin dime of revenue, and Democrats will refuse to cut one thin dime from the social safety net. There will be a party-line vote, and no plan will gain enough votes to force Congress to act.

The “triggers” will be ignored, or legislated out of existence, when the time comes. And we’ll be right back where we started from, except that the Republican 2012 primaries will be taking place. The time-wasting goal of the group will be a resounding success, but the other goals (the ostensible reasons for creating the group, in other words) will simply not be met. The only real open question is how much of a “government shutdown crisis” will be taking place when this comes to pass.

You’ll have to forgive my open cynicism, here. But what astonishes me is how any sane and rational individual (or, additionally, any member of the media) would foresee any different outcome. The battle lines in this fight are dug in deeper than a Word War I trench. They have been for quite some time now. Why nobody seems to have noticed this in Washington absolutely escapes me.

Republicans in Congress are just not going to vote for anything they (or, more importantly, Grover Norquist) labels a “tax hike.” They’re just not going to do it. Period. Ever since George Herbert Walker Bush betrayed his “Read my lips: No new taxes!” campaign pledge, I can’t remember one single time when Republicans have voluntarily supported a tax increase. Perhaps my memory fails me, and perhaps there were a few Republican votes on raising taxes, but the general rule on the Republican side of the aisle since the early 1990s has been anti-tax in the extreme.

So why anyone thinks anything has changed now is beyond me. Especially since the Republican Party as a whole has actually become even more rigid on this issue — with each passing year. The original slogan of at least some of the Tea Partiers was “Taxed Enough Already” (making them the “T.E.A. Party”). What this means now is that compromising on this particular issue is a good way for any Republican politician to incur the wrath of the most vocal part of his or her own base voters — including a likely primary challenge in the next election.

Over 95 per cent of Republicans in Congress have even signed a pledge not to ever raise taxes for any reason whatsoever. When the Republicans were in control of Congress, America started two wars, and — for the first time in its history — refused to raise the taxes necessary to pay for them. Raising taxes to pay for wars, historically, wasn’t just a non-contentious issue, it was actually seen as downright patriotic. “Supporting the troops” used to mean precisely that, and not just spouting some campaign speech or donning a flag pin on your lapel. Those days, to put it mildly, are gone. If even America going to war isn’t a good enough reason to get Republicans to raise taxes, then it is pretty safe to assume that nothing else will, either.

The media — and many Democrats — haven’t quite come to grips with this bedrock fact, it seems. Even some conservative media types seems downright astonished that Republican officeholders aren’t cutting a deal right now on the debt ceiling debate which includes increasing revenues. One wonders exactly where they’ve been, for about the past 20 years or so.

Even looking over the last two or three years, it’s pretty easy to see Republicans cannot be convinced to change their position. The original idea for a debt commission which produced a plan for Congress to vote on — without amendments — was mostly a Republican idea to begin with. It was being pushed in the Senate by several prominent Republicans… right up until President Barack Obama got on board.

Once Obama was for it, all the Republican sponsors of the bill immediately decided they were against it. Clearer evidence is hard to find in Washington that these commissions are primarily meant to be a waste of time. The merest hint that such a commission could lead to any sort of grand bargain between the parties caused the Republicans who came up with the idea in the first place to bolt for the exits.

Instead of a commission empowered by Congress to offer up unamendable bills for up-or-down votes, President Obama was left to name his own “presidential” debt commission instead. It would have no such power, but hopefully everyone would get on board with whatever they agreed upon. And, as a bonus, it would waste almost an entire year.

The “Bowles-Simpson Commission” (or, to save typing, the “B.S. Commission”) was launched. It wrangled over the federal deficit, debt, and taxes. It came to the conclusion that almost every single economist under the sun (Democratic and Republican both) who had ever looked at the problem had agreed upon: you can only truly solve the problem with a combination of raising taxes and cutting spending. Our spending is at a historically-high level of gross domestic product — but our taxing is also at historic lows, measured by the same yardstick. The only real answer is to get both back closer to historic norms.

The Republicans on the commission refused to vote for the plan. It didn’t get enough votes to even be approved by the commission itself — which meant there was precisely zero chance it would ever be enacted by Congress. These days, in an extraordinary display of chutzpah, Republicans berate President Obama because he “didn’t get behind his own debt commission’s plan.” Well, perhaps that was because he knew it was a completely dead issue — as the Republicans had already proven by their “nay” vote.

As a result of the commission’s abject failure to forge consensus, six senators began meeting to hammer out their own plan, along the general lines of the B.S. Commission’s report. This became known — in the juvenile insistence of the press that any such group immediately be called a “gang” — as the “Gang of Six.” The Gang of Six spent a lot of time meeting, and a lot of time bragging about their efforts on television. No plan emerged as a result (to be fair, they were extremely good about not leaking any of the private discussions to the press), for months. When they (down now to a “Gang of Five,” because one Republican had walked out of the negotiations) finally did offer up their plan, it proved to be not detailed enough to write into legislation to meet the debt ceiling deadline — meaning their ultimate goal of running out the clock had successfully been met.

The White House, a few months back, began their own series of meetings (headed by the Vice President) with the leadership of both parties from both houses of Congress. These meetings reportedly agreed to about one trillion dollars in budget cuts (some put the number as high as a trillion-and-a-half). But then when the discussion turned to the tax side of the equation, Republican Eric Cantor bailed out of the meetings. The Biden commission talks were dead, but they had managed to waste quite a number of months, to be fair.

President Obama then got involved, and began holding his own meetings with various members of the congressional leadership. Speaker John Boehner and Barack Obama have now managed to waste a full month on these talks, when both of them knew heading into it that no matter whether Boehner himself agreed to any plan with “tax hikes,” his Republican caucus in the House simply was not going to pass it no matter what he told them to do. Boehner, at this point, is looking over his shoulder at Cantor, who seems increasingly tempted to make a play to wrest the Speakership from Boehner. This means Boehner has no incentive right now to compromise with Democrats in the slightest. In fact, he’s now walked out of the talks twice.

The position we now occupy is a direct result of the Republicans (especially those in the House) going back on a campaign promise they made last year. From their “Pledge To America” campaign document, here is the relevant passage:

Advance Legislative Issues One at a Time: We will end the practice of packaging unpopular bills with “must-pass” legislation to circumvent the will of the American people. Instead we will advance major legislation one issue at a time.

If they had kept to this promise, there would be a separate bill for the rise in the debt ceiling, with no deficit-cutting involved. Instead, we have a “must-pass” bill which has been packaged with an issue the Republicans dearly care about. Strange how the same Republicans who signed this pledge aren’t talking about how they’re now “circumventing the will of the American people,” isn’t it? I guess Grover Norquist’s pledge was more important, in the long run.

But however we got here, here we are. Heading into the final week of negotiations before America defaults on her obligations, Speaker Boehner has decided to punt the hard stuff to yet another commission. This group will be a joint committee between the House and Senate which will have the power to offer a plan which must simply be voted upon by both houses, up or down, without amendment. This is, it should be pointed out, Congress itself declaring to the world that it is broken. Both houses of Congress will be, in essence, stating that they simply cannot get anything done. To solve this problem, they are going to throw up their hands and let others deal with it. This is very similar (if not quite as drastic) as the plan Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has been pushing — which would entirely abdicate Congress’ power, and just hand it over to the executive branch. McConnell, even more than Boehner, is admitting “Congress doesn’t work” and thus voluntarily giving up congressional power. But even Boehner’s committee idea is nothing more than punting responsibility. Call it a shorter punt, if you will, but it is still a punt nevertheless.

Perhaps I’m being too hard on Republicans, here. I really didn’t write this to blame any particular party — just to point out the insanity of expecting anything different in five months under Boehner’s proposal, from either party. Democrats certainly have shared in the time-wasting aspect of the situation themselves. The Senate, in particular, punted on passing a budget last year. When Democrats held an overwhelming advantage in the Senate (although not, since Scott Brown was elected, a filibuster-proof edge in numbers), they could have made their budget priorities plain and clear. They could have introduced the Democratic budget to solve all the nation’s problems — even if it was filibustered to death. They could even — as late as December of last year — have just gone ahead and raised the debt ceiling until after the 2012 elections. They did not do so. They — again, I single out the Senate in particular — punted. They punted to a Congress which is much more Republican, and now they are paying the price for not doing their job in the first place. In other words, if it’s a blame-game you’re interested in, there is plenty of blame to shovel around on both sides of the fence.

The outcome of Boehner’s proposed committee, though, is now all but certain (if it does indeed pass, which is doubtful at this point). Assumably, there will be some Democrats on Boehner’s committee, and some Republicans. It’s an iron-clad guarantee that the Republicans on this committee will not vote for any tax increases, in any way, shape, or form. Meaning the committee will not approve much of anything (see: B.S. Commission, mentioned above). Democrats are not going to vote to gut Social Security and Medicare, and Republicans are not going to raise a penny in revenues — so why bother to even have the commission in the first place?

Well, it would waste a bunch of time. I guess there’s always that.


Chris Weigant blogs at:

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


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