There have been a lot of lists ranking the political winners and losers in the debt deal (Chris Cillizza has a good one here). But what about the winners and losers in the policy? Turns out there are plenty of those, as well. In particular, there are plenty of losers. So let’s start with them.
The Pentagon: A year ago, defense spending was supposed to be sacrosanct. We even had a term of art for how to cut spending without touching defense: “non-defense discretionary spending.” But no one takes it on the chin the way the Pentagon does in this deal. They’re getting $350 billion in immediate cuts and then, if the trigger goes off, another $600 billion in cuts over the next 10 years. They’ve also been jammed into a structurally dangerous position: With taxes off the table, defense cuts have become the concession Republicans can give Democrats in these deals. If that dynamic holds over the next few years, this may not be the last time the Pentagon gets the knife.
The unemployed: In the 2010 tax deal, Democrats managed to expand and extend unemployment benefits through 2011. This deal lets them expire at the end of the year. That means that barring some later rescue, $60 billion in support for the jobless will evaporate Dec. 31, 2011. That’s not only a huge blow to the uninsured themselves, but it removes some much-needed economic support from a teetering economy. Speaking of which ...
The economy: “The nation’s political leaders agreed on Sunday to spend and invest less money in the American economy, a step that economists said risks the reversal of a faltering recovery.” Does that sound like the beginning of an Onion piece? Sorry, it’s actually the first sentence of an article in today’s New York Times. And it’s true. Last week, we learned that the economy had been much weaker than we had thought over the past three years, and that the recovery was continuing to sputter because businesses, governments, and individuals weren’t spending enough. So what are we doing? We’re letting the payroll tax cut and unemployment benefits expire, which will further cut spending among individuals. We’re cutting government spending, which will remove that source of demand. And we’re somehow assuming that businesses will invest more even though their government contracts just got canceled and their customers just saw their paychecks and benefits shrink.
Medicare: Social Security is exempted from the trigger. Medicaid is exempted from the trigger. But Medicare will see significant cuts to provider payments if Congress doesn’t reach a deal. That means it was easier for the parties to agree to Medicare cuts than to Social Security or Medicaid cuts, which may speak to the composition of the ultimate deal. Add in the fact that the Obama administration was willing to lift the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 67, and perhaps Medicare is in more trouble than we thought.
Tax-raisers: There are no revenues in this deal. John Boehner has sworn that he won’t permit revenues in the next deal. There are no revenues.
Tax-cutters: Boehner’s peculiar spin aside, there is nothing stopping the Joint Committee from raising revenues. What they can’t do is touch the Bush tax cuts. But that just means the Bush tax cuts will be dealt with at the end of 2012, when gridlock and disagreement will lead to their full expiration. That’s a scenario much more favorable to those who want to raise taxes than to those who want to cut them.
Deficit hawks: Three weeks ago, it seemed possible that this deal could include agreement on $4 trillion in deficit reduction. In fact, it includes agreement on about $900 billion in deficit reduction, and $2.1 trillion if you count the trigger as a sure thing. A related group of losers are the Simpson-Bowles commission, the Gang of Six, etc. That was a lot of work for nothing.
The economy: Chris Rock has a good bit on people wanting credit for doing things they’re supposed to do, like taking care of their children and not ending up in jail. Avoiding default is something Congress is supposed to do. So the fact that I even have to mention this suggests that the American people are losers here. But nevertheless, it’s good we didn’t default. Or at least, it’s good that we don’t look like we’re going to default. The deal hasn’t passed yet.
Defense-spending skeptics: There are a lot of people in this town who have long lamented the Pentagon’s apparent imperviousness to budget cuts. Those days are over. Defense spending is now on the table, and might actually take the deepest cuts in the deal.
Medicaid: The conventional wisdom of a few months ago was that Medicare was safe and Medicaid was on the chopping block. This deal protects Medicaid from the trigger and opens Medicare to cuts. That may or may not say much about how the cuts will fall when all is said and done. But it suggests that the White House wants Medicaid protected, and Republicans aren’t so terrified of cutting Medicare that Medicaid will be their only option for health cuts.
Tax-raisers: If you want to raise taxes in any serious way, your only hope is to let most or all of the Bush tax cuts expire. Any deal that preempted their expiration in return for some small tax increases now is, in your world, a very bad deal. Any deal that preserves your ability to negotiate over taxes later, when the potential expiration of the cuts gives you leverage, is a good deal. By that measure, this is a good deal.
Tax-cutters: There are no revenues in this deal. Even better, Republicans have proven that they can stand against revenues in a dealmaking context. Next year is an election year, and Republicans are going to be even less likely to agree to revenues, and the Obama administration is going to be even more afraid of increasing taxes. You’re pretty much safe.
What am I missing?