The line you often hear in Washington is that Republicans won’t talk taxes and Democrats won’t talk entitlements. The two parties, the thinking goes, are similarly irresponsible, albeit on opposite sides of the budget.
“Our party’s problem is, we are always reluctant to give up the gains of the past to create the future,” Bill Clinton told the audience at the Pete Peterson’s fiscal summit. “Democrats are reluctant to commit to longer-term health-care savings; they don’t want to touch Social Security.”
Clinton went on to attack Republicans for becoming a far more extreme and ideological party, making compromise nearly impossible. But he brought up the same point time and again: “My party is not blameless.”
Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.), a former member of the supercommittee, echoed the same sentiments at Peterson’s deficit-reduction confab. In responding to legitimate fears that Republicans would privatize or eliminate social services,“maybe Democrats worked too hard to protect those programs from devastating cuts and in doing so, perhaps that has kept us from trying to come up with a smart budget,” Becerra admitted.
Democrats say they took these criticisms to heart during the supercommittee negotiations, initially proposing $400 billion in savings from Medicare — half through benefit cuts and half through provider cuts. Democrats point to such proposals as evidence of their party’s willingness to compromise and incorporate a diversity of views, blaming Republican intransigence for the deficit-reduction talks’ ultimate failure. “We have a lot of people in our party who will not be drummed out if they depart from the conventional wisdom,” Clinton explained.
For all that the Democrats tried to show they were willing to talk entitlements, you didn’t hear any Republicans at Peterson’s fiscal summit saying that they should be willing to compromise more by considering tax increases.
Even when asked point-blank how the GOP was to blame for the deficit crisis, Sen. Rob Portman — Bush’s budget director and another supercommittee alum — avoided any mention of taxes. Yes, he said, the Bush administration could have paid more attention to the long-term fiscal picture. But it was because “after 9/11, particularly ... more was spent on homeland security, defense,” Portman explained. He added that Bush should have vetoed costly appropriations bills from Congress and cut more social spending. What he didn’t bring up: the Bush tax cuts — which have added more than $1.8 trillion to the deficit, more than any single other program under his presidency or Obama’s.
When Republican discuss a fresh approach to taxes, they cast it as “tax reform” that excluded any tax hikes. “What also doesn’t count as ‘cuts and reforms’ are tax increases,” said Speaker John Boehner, declaring that the GOP would refuse the lift the debt-ceiling — once again — until equivalent “cuts and reforms” were passed. (Read Boehner’s full speech.)
CNN’s Erin Burnett prodded Boehner further to see whether Republicans were, in fact, completely unwilling to compromise on the issue. After all, closing tax loopholes and carve-outs — something that the House speaker did promise to do — would presumably result in some people paying more, right?
Boehner stuck to the script, insisting that “lowering rates and broadening the base” was the only acceptable answer. Burnett pressed the question again: “Broadening the base” meant closing loopholes, which meant taxes for some would go up, right? Boehner equivocated. “Yeah, some may pay more and some may pay less,” he said quickly.
So, under duress, Republicans signaled a tiny bit of wiggle room on taxes. Sen. Pat Toomey suggested as much during the last gasp of the supercommittee negotiations, with a proposal that would save $250 billion through limiting tax deductions and write-offs.
But unlike the Democrats, Republicans are much more reluctant to self-flagellate. And they certainly weren’t going to question the party’s “no tax increases” line on stage at the Andrew Mellon auditorium, with TV cameras rolling.