The obvious compromise between the Reid and Boehner plans
By Ezra Klein,
BRENDAN HOFFMAN/BLOOMBERG When it comes to cutting the deficit, the plans proposed by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (read it here) and House Speaker John Boehner (read it here) are much more similar than they are different. It’s when they come to raising the debt ceiling that the consensus cracks apart.
Both plans call for $1.2 trillion in cuts to discretionary spending. Both plans envision the formation of a bipartisan “Supercommittee” that will try to find consensus on a larger deficit-reduction package that, if it wins a majority on the Supercommittee, will be immune to amendments and filibusters and be fast-tracked for an up-or-down vote in the House and the Senate.
Reid’s plan includes $100 billion in savings from so-called “mandatory spending” like Fannie Mae and agricultural subsidies, $1 trillion in savings from winding down the wars, and $400 billion in reduced interest payments from cutting more than $200 billion in spending. Boehner’s plan doesn’t specifically include any of that, but it’s fair to expect that his bipartisan committee would end up recommending many of the same mandatory savings, that the wars will wind down whether Boehner mentions them or not, and if all that happens, his interest savings will be similar. So the two plans are roughly equivalent in their immediate savings.
But that’s about as far as the agreement goes. Reid would use his $2.7 trillion in named savings to raise the debt ceiling through to 2013. Boehner underplays his savings precisely so he doesn’t have to raise the debt ceiling through to 2013. He doesn’t mention the war spending or interest savings, for instance, which Republicans counted in the Ryan budget, and which were part of Boehner’s negotiations with the White House. That allows Boehner to say he’s saving $1.2 trillion rather than $2.4 trillion, and thus gives him reason to only raise the debt ceiling by $1 trillion and demand that Congress go through another debt-ceiling debate next year. But that’s a choice he’s making, for reasons that will come clear in a moment.
Boehner’s plan also forces a vote on a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution by October 1st and set down strict caps to control spending in the future. If the caps are exceeded then the law would trigger automatic, across-the-board spending cuts. And that’s all before we get to 2012.
Once we get to 2012, either the new congressional committee reports out a plan that Congress approves or the debt ceiling isn’t raised. That is to say, either we strike the sort of grand bargain that proved impossible this year during an election year, or we’re back to threatening the full faith and credit of the country — and this time, we’ll be doing it in the most politically polarized of all possible worlds.
The similarity of the two plans does, however, suggest an obvious compromise. The final plan could adopt Reid’s initial spending cuts, which are both slightly larger and more impressively stated than Boehner’s, and Reid’s longer debt-ceiling increase. But it could adopt Boehner’s idea for across-the-board spending cuts — perhaps in an augmented form that includes penalties designed to bring Republicans to the table — if a second round of deficit reduction doesn’t pass. It could also include a vote on a balanced-budget amendment, though I personally dislike this policy and consider it a mistake.
That compromise would preserve the cuts that the two parties have now agreed to, end the uncertainty about whether Congress will violate America’s full faith and credit, and impose an enforcement mechanism that properly forces deficit reduction by threatening a more severe form of deficit reduction — as opposed to an unnecessary economic crisis — if Congress can’t come to an agreement.
In theory, that should achieve almost all of Boehner’s goals. The only way it doesn’t is if he actually wants to endanger the American economy in an election year. But he doesn’t want that, right?