A number of conservatives have started to muse whether, given the 2012 election results and the looming defense cuts and tax hikes, Republicans would be better off just proposing the Simpson-Bowles commission’s debt reduction plan.
Guy Benson, for example, has written: “The defense cuts [in Simpson-Bowles] are also worrisome, as is the fact that despite some cuts and tinkering, Medicare — the largest long-term driver of our debt — escapes a desperately needed overhaul. The framework also assumes the retention of Obamacare, which Paul Ryan has cited as a primary cause of his ‘no’ vote. But here is today’s reality: (1) Unhappy tax news is coming, one way or the other. The president is not budging. (2) The fall election guaranteed that Obamacare is here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future. (3) Sequestration’s defense cuts would be even more punishing and abrupt than Simpson/Bowles reductions. (4) Democrats have shown themselves to be totally unserious about any reforms or reductions to entitlements. In short, even if the major players manage to hammer out an eleventh-hour deal before January 1, it’s probably going to reek.”
This is not unreasonable, although I would add a few important caveats, some of which Guy and other have touched on, and suggest that there might be a better way to proceed.
To begin with, Simpson-Bowles would offer Republicans something likely unattainable in any other mechanism: “Eliminate all income tax expenditures, dedicate a portion of the additional revenue to deficit reduction, and use the remaining revenue to lower rates and add back necessary expenditures and credits. . . . A ‘zero plan’ could reduce income tax rates to as low as 8%, 14%, and 23%. Even after adding back a number of larger tax expenditures, rates would still remain significantly lower than under current law.” In other words: What is it worth to Republicans to get a top marginal rate that starts with a “2”?
Defense cuts in Simpson-Bowles, again, were a major reason to oppose the plan at the time. Moreover, the commission’s level of defense cuts could well exceed the already “devastating” sequestration cuts ($500 billion). The president has already said the defense sequestration cuts won’t happen, so Republicans would be well advised to demand the president put forth his alternative so that our national security is not thrown onto the shoals. (Moreover, the discretionary-spending cuts Simpson-Bowles proposed started with a 2011 baseline, well after President Obama had hiked discretionary spending through the roof.)
Worse is what Simpson-Bowles doesn’t do. Let’s put Obamacare off to the side for a moment, since Republicans’ only reasonable means of getting rid of that is to delay its implementation and win the White House and Senate by 2016. But Simpson-Bowles includes no systematic reform of Medicare and includes a huge tax increase on Social Security (raising the level of income subject to payroll tax to 90 percent of earnings). That is a lousy deal for Republicans and ignores some other bipartisan Medicare reform proposals (e.g. Ryan-Wyden, Lieberman-Coburn).
In sum, the “best” part of Simpson-Bowles for conservatives is, ironically, the tax provision. Yes, it raises quite a bit of revenue, but the low marginal rate at the top might be very attractive.
It would seem Republicans have a couple of options if the president doesn’t come back to Planet Earth on fiscal-cliff negotiations.
One would be to do nothing, take the defense cuts and the tax hikes and let Obama “own” the resulting recession. To be candid, I think Republicans will get killed if they do that and, no matter how irresponsible the president is being, Republicans should not willingly send the economy into a recession.
The alternative is to sketch out a single-page tax plan (Simpson-Bowles-style), an entitlement reform plan and discretionary cuts (including defense, which will have to take some hit, albeit less than $500 billion). Total it all up, calculate the impact on job figures under this plan and under the president’s (or the fiscal cliff), shove it under the Oval Office door and wait.
Let there be a debate on a rather specific GOP plan that has real tax reform and considerable revenue and on the president’s plan, which really does very little on the spending side and hits small business This may not result in a deal, but the Republicans will have acted responsibly and disgorged responsibility for the ensuing recession if Obama remains in negotiation la-la land.
It is imperfect, very well may not work and will prompt screams for the right-wing base. But, ya know, that’s the best you can do when you lose a really important election.