Maya MacGuineas, president of the bipartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, has been searching for ways to break through to voters. “I was talking to a pollster the other day. He said, ‘The problem is your language. It’s all about austerity. You have to make it about aspiration.’ I was like, ‘Really? I’m pretty sure we need to talk about austerity. Because it’s not going to be all peaches and ice cream when we do this.’ ”
In a perfect world, MacGuineas said, she imagines a presidential address recalling “important moments in history when we made huge decisions that propelled the country forward or screwed us up for years. We’re at one of those moments.”
House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) has delivered speeches like that, stating plainly that solving the problem will require people to pay more for government and get less in return.
But, he said, “I don’t talk in terms of sacrifice. I don’t think we have to make sacrifices. If the middle class were contributing at the rates they were contributing under Bill Clinton, in which they enjoyed the best economic situation they’ve ever been in, we would generate enough dollars to solve our deficit problem.”
Hoyer acknowledged, however, that Obama and the Democrats are not likely to risk campaigning on a return to the higher middle-class tax rates of the 1990s. Instead, Obama has been implying that the debt problem can be solved by raising taxes on the tiny fraction of people earning more than $1 million a year. Republican presidential contenders, meanwhile, are proposing to tame the debt by spending cuts alone, perhaps by eliminating a few federal agencies.
Hunger for leadership
The next major budget crisis is already on the calendar. It is scheduled for January 2013, just after the next election.
That’s when policymakers face a trifecta of politically perilous developments. Deep spending cuts affecting all parts of government are scheduled to take effect, courtesy of this past summer’s Budget Control Act. The George W. Bush-era tax cuts, which benefit virtually every household in America, are set to expire. And the national debt will once again be approaching the legal limit set by Congress.
Ironically, if Congress did nothing at that moment, the debt problem would largely disappear. The expiration of the Bush tax cuts and related provisions would bring in an additional $4 trillion over 10 years. The spending cuts would add savings of more than $1 trillion. Borrowing would slow and the debt would begin to fall as a percentage of the economy by the end of the decade, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.
No one expects that to happen, however. Instead, policymakers will be under enormous pressure to come up with more palatable alternatives.
“You have a perfect storm set up for December 2012,” said White House budget director Jacob J. Lew. “I think we’re on a path where it’s almost inevitable within the next 18 months that decisions are made.”
Lew is an optimist, but he may turn out to be right. Ribble, the Wisconsin freshman, has already made one decision. During his campaign last year, Ribble signed a pledge never to raise taxes. He would not sign again, he says. And he is working on a plan to change the tax code by wiping out cherished subsidies.
“I’ve heard this a lot this year: ‘We just have to wait till the next election. We have to wait, we have to wait, we have to wait.’ Well, I think the American people are hungry for someone to lead,” Ribble said. “It’s our job as members of Congress to go back to our districts and communicate why these reforms have to happen.”