Last week, however, Ribble went home for the holidays with little to show for all the political drama. The debt stood at $15.1 trillion, $1 trillion more than when he got to town. By the end of next year, projections show, it will grow by an additional $1 trillion. Ribble said he and his allies had cut spending for 2012 by only about $7 billion, a sliver so tiny Ribble could measure its impact in minutes.
“We’ve saved the American taxpayer about 17 hours of spending. That’s it,” he said. “When you just really stop and think about it, we’ve made very little progress.”
Look past 2012, and the budget deals of the past year make a more significant dent. They reduce spending by more than $1 trillion over the next 10 years, the largest debt reduction in two decades. Yet no one, of any ideological stripe, is bragging about the accomplishment. Instead, the Capitol is pervaded by an atmosphere of failure, of opportunity blown.
Despite round after round of negotiations — first over the operating budget, then over the federal debt ceiling and finally in the deficit “supercommittee” that disbanded last month —Republicans and Democrats never resolved the most fundamental budget questions: whether to raise taxes and how to control spending on an aging population.
There was some movement. Some Democrats, including President Obama, conceded that Social Security and Medicare pose a long-term threat if there are no constraints on benefits. Some Republicans, including House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), declared themselves willing to talk about raising taxes, a break from the GOP’s long-standing and vigilantly enforced party line.
But Boehner was not able to lead his top lieutenants and unbending freshman class to embrace a compromise on taxes as a first step toward their debt-
reduction goals. In more than a dozen interviews, lawmakers and independent analysts blamed leaders in both parties for failing to seize the moment and then retreating to their respective corners to prepare an election-year assault on the ideas offered by the other side. Many expressed their frustration with an unusual candor that reflected exhaustion as well as disappointment.
“Both major political parties have not been honest about what it’s going to take to fix this,” said Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), who has led Senate efforts to forge consensus. “Expectations of us are so low, if we could actually show we can put policy ahead of party, I think the reaction would be so positive.”