Ruth Marcus: A moment for flexibility by Democrats

Columnist October 18, 2013

The federal government has reopened and is paying its bills, but the political system remains fundamentally gridlocked and the definition of success going forward depressingly unambitious. Forget the “grand bargain.” We’re talking smallish tweaks, and even those won’t come easily.

But — and brace yourself for a bit of heresy — some well-timed Democratic flexibility on the need for new taxes might help break the logjam.

Ruth Marcus is a columnist and editorial writer for The Post, specializing in American politics and domestic policy. View Archive

In the short term, the unyielding stance of President Obama and congressional Democrats on the debt ceiling and shutdown worked. (Though a touch more of Churchillian magnanimity in victory might have been in order. Obama rushed to declare victory even before the House had voted, and on the morning after sounded more peeved — understandably so — than healing.)

Still, the president proved his point and most likely won’t have to prove it again. The costly, maddening brinkmanship is less likely to repeat itself when the deadlines come up again early next year.

As Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky observed in an interview with the Hill newspaper, “There’s no education in the second kick of a mule.” In the case of Republicans, the mule had to kick twice — in the 1995 shutdown and now — but the painful lesson has, it seems, been learned.

In the future, McConnell said, “There will not be a government shutdown. I think we have fully now acquainted our new members with what a losing strategy that is.”

Yet the resolution of the immediate crisis leaves lawmakers and the president in the familiar budgetary stalemate that led to the shutdown. Was it just nine months ago that Obama, in his inaugural address, called for tackling climate change, gun violence and gay rights? Now he’d be happy to pass a farm bill.

Okay, that slightly overstates matters (the president’s tripartite to-do list, announced Thursday, also included crafting a budget agreement and enacting immigration reform). Indeed, there are some grounds for optimism.

The bipartisan group of 14 senators assembled by Maine Republican Susan Collins represents a vibrant and growing coalition of the reasonable and responsible. The business community, an essential Republican ally (read: financier), is increasingly exasperated by the excesses of the tea party.

Meanwhile, the outside groups egging on tea party lawmakers have alienated more traditional conservative lawmakers. Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, no moderate squish, lashed out against Heritage Action, which fomented the defund-Obamacare-at-all-costs strategy.

“There’s a real question on the minds of many Republicans now, and I’m not just thinking for myself, for a lot of people: Is Heritage going to go so political that it really doesn’t amount to anything anymore?” Hatch told NBC’s Chuck Todd.

But initial reports from the budget conferees were not exactly cheering. The grand bargain — serious steps to rein in entitlement spending combined with tax reform that would raise major new revenue — has repeatedly proved elusive.

The more attainable alternative is a deal that would buy down some of the “sequester” cuts to discretionary spending by replacing them with trims to the entitlement programs that are at the heart of the budget problem.

Both sides have an incentive here. For Republicans, it is not only the lure of curtailing entitlement spending but also the fact that defense faces a serious, additional hit in the next round of sequester cuts. For Democrats, the squeeze on discretionary spending may be enough to consider accepting entitlement reforms.

The sticking point, as always, will be raising revenue — that is, the Republicans’ unwillingness to consider it, the Democrats’ refusal to budge without it. This phenomenon has both political and substantive dimensions. Politically, Democratic lawmakers demand revenue as the price for entitlement trims, and it will be difficult to persuade them to relent. Substantively, it is galling for Democrats to consider asking for sacrifices from those in the relative middle while the ultra-wealthy are spared.

Certainly a big budget deal would demand a balanced approach. But why must that be true in the current, more limited context of relieving the sequester’s bite? In this situation, demanding tax revenue equivalent, say, to the defense half of the sequester seems more symbolic than essential.

Some creative revenue thinking is needed. Raise the gas tax (it’s a user fee!) to finance infrastructure spending. Revive the president’s plan for a dedicated funding source (increased tobacco tax) for early childhood education. Consider lifting the income ceiling for Social Security taxes, combined, say, with a change in calculating cost of living adjustments.

Democrats would do well to remember: Taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society. They are not an end in themselves.

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