The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote powerfully about “cheap grace,” and I am afraid that is the term that came to mind when I heard about the letter signed by 64 senators, 32 from each party, to “inform” President Obama that they “believe comprehensive deficit reduction measures are imperative” and to ask him “to support a broad approach to solving the problem.”
I agree wholeheartedly with Ezra Klein that the letter is “an odd document” and wonder what they are really trying to say. My suspicion is that different senators are saying quite different things in signing this letter, which is why I don’t think this will go anywhere. Guys, you need to put something more concrete on the table.
The letter is so short that I’ll just quote it in full:
Dear President Obama:
As the Administration continues to work with Congressional leadership regarding our current budget situation, we write to inform you that we believe comprehensive deficit reduction measures are imperative and to ask you to support a broad approach to solving the problem.
As you know, a bipartisan group of Senators has been working to craft a comprehensive deficit reduction package based upon the recommendations of the Fiscal Commission. While we may not agree with every aspect of the Commission’s recommendations, we believe that its work represents an important foundation to achieve meaningful progress on our debt. The Commission’s work also underscored the scope and breadth of our nation’s long-term fiscal challenges.
Beyond FY2011 funding decisions, we urge you to engage in a broader discussion about a comprehensive deficit reduction package. Specifically, we hope that the discussion will include discretionary spending cuts, entitlement changes and tax reform.
By approaching these negotiations comprehensively, with a strong signal of support from you, we believe that we can achieve consensus on these important fiscal issues. This would send a powerful message to Americans that Washington can work together to tackle this critical issue.
Thank you for your attention to this matter.
A few observations. First, I’m tired of everyone saying that a deal should be “based upon the recommendations of the Fiscal Commission” while also saying “we may not agree with every aspect of the Commission’s recommendations.” How can you base a deal on something you don’t actually agree with? Far more constructive would have been a letter outlining in very clear terms which parts of the commission’s proposal they actually agreed with. That, at least, would have been a concrete start.
Second, there was only a glancing reference to new revenue. Note this sentence: “Specifically, we hope that the discussion will include discretionary spending cuts, entitlement changes and tax reform.” Greg Sargent’s analysis of this was exactly right:
I checked in with a couple of Senate aides about this, and they were amused by the reference to “tax reform.” As they put it to me, this is a weaselly and euphemistic way of suggesting that maybe, just maybe, tax hikes on the rich (which many Dems want) should possibly be part of the discussions — without saying so outright in a way that Republican senators who signed the letter would find unacceptable.
By contrast, the first two of those, “discretionary spending cuts” and “entitlement changes,” are clear and direct references to the solutions advocated most emphatically by many Republicans and conservatives.
Again, I’m tired of people hiding behind “tax reform.” Yes, tax reform is a nice idea, and if some Republicans can find their way toward raising revenue under this banner, great. But unless it’s a kind of tax reform we haven’t seen before, I am very skeptical that “tax reform” will be enough. We really do need tax increases, and that still seems very hard for Republicans to say.
And how much courage does it take to sign a letter telling someone else he needs to show courage before the signers can show courage? Then again, they’re not really asking much of Obama, either. They call on him “to support a broad approach to solving the problem,” which in some sense he already has, and to send “a strong signal of support” for “approaching these negotiations comprehensively.” Well, sure. Then what?
There’s either more going on here than meets the eye, or less. For all the signers, it was an easy way to go home to their constituents to say, “See, I was really bipartisan!” and “See, I really want to deal with the deficit!” That’s what I mean by cheap grace. I have nothing against politics, and if that’s all the letter is, the senators can use it to whatever advantage they can. But the rest of us should just ignore it.
Then there are the different signals that different groups of senators were sending with this. The more liberal signers want to make the point that dealing with the very small part of the budget that House Republicans are focused on is foolishness. That’s completely true. Some Republicans may really and truly want to signal that they understand the need for revenue. That would be good. But neither of these points is made explicitly. So again, this letter doesn’t matter nearly as much as the next one – if there is a next one. And I suspect that most of the Republicans and some of the Democrats want to tweak Obama and imply that if nothing happens, it’s really his fault. This is just more politics.
The Senate works in strange ways, and perhaps this letter is part of some carefully choreographed drama. If that’s true, I look forward to the next act. The first one didn’t impress me (or Ezra or Greg) very much.