The Washington Post

Do nothing on the debt before 2012 elections?

Would it be better if Congress did nothing serious about the debt this year or next?

Washington Monthly's Steve Benen on Monday raised alarm from the left about bipartisan debt negotiations in the Senate:

As of yesterday, members of the gang signaled that the talks are not only back on track, but are also "very close" to a compromise. And given what participants are saying about the plan's substance, Democrats will soon wish the talks had collapsed.

Benen explains that the group of senators negotiating the plan, known as the Gang of Six, is likely to agree on adjustments to Social Security and spending caps in return for increases in certain taxes.  

By all appearances, Democrats in this group are prepared to effective give up any hopes of progressive governance for a generation and give in to entitlement cuts, in exchange for tax increases that sane Republicans should consider a no-brainer anyway.

I sympathize with Benen, particularly on what such a plan might mean for the sorts of investments in the young and entrepreneurial that such a plan might forgo. Yet one could easily rephrase Benen's argument from the conservative point of view, and it would hold at least as much appeal to that side of the spectrum:

By all appearances, Republicans in this group are prepared to effectively give up any hopes of small government for a generation and give in to tax hikes, in exchange for entitlement cuts that sane Democrats should consider a no-brainer anyway.

There’s a danger that Benen’s line feeds into Paul Krugman’s, also from Monday: That there is no compromise possible between Democrats and Republicans on debt reduction, and the 2012 elections will decide which way the country wants to go — raising taxes and refusing to cut social insurance, or slashing the safety net and keeping taxes low. That's logic designed for ideological comfort.

But neither the Democratic nor the Republican vision recently articulated is likely to result in the sort of reform needed to fix America's finances in a way that achieves anything but basic solvency, if that. Nor is either party likely to get its way after 2012, anyway. Barring some truly massive electoral landslide or Matt Miller’s third-party groundswell, Republicans will still hate tax hikes, Democrats will still hate entitlement cuts, and the filibuster-era Senate will still be the filibuster-era Senate.

The Gang of Six’s plan might not be perfect. But openness to compromise is critical. For anything big to happen, both parties will probably have to betray some of their most powerful instincts, even after 2012.

Stephen Stromberg is a Post editorial writer. He specializes in domestic policy, including energy, the environment, legal affairs and public health.


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