To Escape Chaos, a Terrible Deal
There is little to like about the tentative agreement between Congressional leaders and the White House except that it happened at all. The deal would avert a catastrophic government default, immediately and probably through the end of 2012. The rest of it is a nearly complete capitulation to the hostage-taking demands of Republican extremists. It will hurt programs for the middle class and poor, and hinder an economic recovery.
It is not yet set in stone, and there may still be time to make it better. But in the end, most Democrats will have no choice but to swallow their fury, accept the deal and, we hope, fight harder the next time.
For weeks, ever since House Republicans said they would not raise the nation’s debt ceiling without huge spending cuts, Democrats have held out for a few basic principles. There must be new tax revenues in the mix so that the wealthy bear a share of the burden and Medicare cannot be affected.
Those principles were discarded to get a deal that cuts about $2.5 trillion from the deficit over a decade. The first $900 billion to a trillion will come directly from domestic discretionary programs (about a third of it from the Pentagon) and will include no new revenues. The next $1.5 trillion will be determined by a “supercommittee” of 12 lawmakers that could recommend revenues, but is unlikely to do so since half its members will be Republicans.
If the committee is deadlocked, or its recommendations are rejected by either house of Congress, then a dreaded guillotine of cuts would come down: $1.2 trillion in across-the-board spending reductions that would begin to go into effect by early 2013.
Negotiators have tried to make this penalty mechanism as unpalatable as possible to provide an incentive for the supercommittee and Congress to avert it. For Democrats, the penalty would include cuts to Medicare providers. The penalty for Republicans should have been new tax revenues, but of course they refused to consider that and got their way. Instead, their incentive will be trying to avoid large cuts in the military budget.
Democrats won a provision drawn from automatic-cut mechanisms in previous decades that exempts low-income entitlement programs. There is no requirement that a balanced-budget amendment pass Congress. There will be no second hostage-taking on the debt ceiling in a few months, as Speaker John Boehner and his band of radicals originally demanded. Democratic negotiators decided that the automatic cut system, as bad as it is, was less of a threat to the economy than another default crisis, and many are counting on future Congresses to undo its arbitrary butchering.
Sadly, in a political environment laced with lunacy, that calculation is probably correct. Some Republicans in the House were inviting a default, hoping that an economic earthquake would shake Washington and the Obama administration beyond recognition. Democrats were right to fear the effects of a default and the impact of a new recession on all Americans.
President Obama could have been more adamant in dealing with Republicans, perhaps threatening to use constitutional powers to ignore the debt ceiling if Congress abrogated its responsibility to raise it. But this episode demonstrates the effectiveness of extortion. Reasonable people are forced to give in to those willing to endanger the national interest.
Democrats can look forward to the expiration of the Bush tax cuts next year, and will have to make the case in the 2012 elections for new lawmakers who will undo the damage.