It's hard to believe Mitch McConnell on deficit reduction

Friday, September 17, 2010

SO LET'S GET this straight: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell wants to extend all of the expiring Bush tax cuts, at a cost of somewhere close to $4 trillion over the next decade. How does Mr. McConnell, who professes to be concerned about the debt, plan to avoid digging the fiscal hole that much deeper? Mr. McConnell has a few stock answers to this question, each less satisfying than the previous.

The first boils down to: Why bother offsetting the cost of the tax cuts? "What are you talking about 'paid for'?" he asked NBC's David Gregory on "Meet the Press" last month. "This is existing tax policy. It's been in place for 10 years." Right, and it's expiring. The extension will drain money from the Treasury. Do Mr. McConnell and his colleagues care about that mounting debt -- or only about maintaining tax cuts premised on the prospect of an illusory surplus?

The second response is: Cut spending. "We have a spending problem," Mr. McConnell said Tuesday. "We spend too much. We don't have a taxing problem. We don't tax too little." But when he's pressed to get down to specifics, Mr. McConnell's response is, for the most part, to punt. The "for the most part" caveat is that Mr. McConnell does claim credit for $300 billion saved over 10 years by persuading Democrats to freeze spending at last year's levels. "Which is not chump change," Mr. McConnell noted. Except it is, out of $4 trillion, and, of course, those "savings" depend on Congress actually being willing to keep to that figure.

As to the punting -- and here's where you can only marvel at the minority leader's gall -- Mr. McConnell shifts the onus of coming up with the savings to the president's deficit commission. Yes, that deficit commission -- the one that Mr. McConnell managed to neuter. You may recall that Mr. McConnell, who once thought that a deficit commission was a great idea, flip-flopped when it appeared the commission might become a reality. He helped torpedo the effort to give the commission statutory authority for fast-track congressional action. Instead, Mr. Obama was forced by Mr. McConnell's maneuver to the weaker fall-back of creating a commission by executive order.

"This is not going to be your typical commission . . . [that's] going to issue a report, sit on the shelf and gather dust," Mr. McConnell said on "Meet the Press." "We'll wait for their report; and I intend, if it's a responsible report that I can support, [to] encourage my members to support it." If Mr. McConnell thinks the commission is going to come up with anywhere near the cost of his proposed tax cuts in reduced spending, he is smoking a substance they're not known for in Kentucky.

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