If the bipartisan deficit commission doesn't work, how about a partisan one?

Commentary about business and finance.
Nov. 11 2010 6:32 PM

Do It Yourself

If the bipartisan deficit commission doesn't work, how about a partisan one?

Alan Simpson. Click image to expand.
Deficit commission co-chairman Alan Simpson

The preliminary plan released by the co-chairs of President Obama's deficit commission Wednesday wasn't just dead-on-arrival. It was pre-dead. Its death can be dated to Jan. 26, 2010, when the Senate rejected the idea of a bipartisan commission that would have the power to bind Congress. Without that power, the commission's eventual report—set to be released by Dec. 1—is just another piece of paper.

But the commission's problem goes deeper than mere political irrelevance. It's working against the strongest force in Washington: partisanship. Any serious effort to do Something Important—eliminating the debt, for example—is more likely to succeed by exploiting partisanship than by trying to overcome it.

The premise of the commission, chaired by Democrat Erskine Bowles and Republican Alan Simpson, was that 1) it would "depoliticize" the process by pulling it outside the bickering halls of Congress, and 2) it would allow Republicans and Democrats to trade compromises one by one until the economic forecast is back in the black.

That doesn't seem to be happening. Instead, the plan—which includes a mix of eliminating tax breaks, cutting military spending, and shrinking entitlements by, among other things, raising the retirement age—is drawing skepticism from both sides. Illinois Democrat Jan Schakowsky, a member of the panel, said it was "not a proposal I could support." Another member, Texas Republican Jeb Hensarling, called it "provocative." Bowles and Simpson emphasized that it was merely a "starting point." But blowback on the left and right suggests that the final plan may never get the 14 out of 18 votes it needs to get passed along to Congress. And even if it did, Congress could just ignore it.

What then? Ignoring the deficit may not be an option for much longer. Eventually, investors nervous about the American economy (hello, China!) would pull out their money, and the whole system would come crashing down. With two failed commissions—something called the Bipartisan Policy Center is also working on a (probably doomed) proposal—bipartisan solutions will have been exhausted. Which leaves just one option: partisan solutions.

The biggest accomplishments of the last decade have been partisan. Health care reform passed without a single Republican vote. Wall Street reform attracted zero GOP votes in the House and only three in the Senate. The stimulus package was a Democrat-only affair. Under President Bush, too, partisanship ruled. His 2003 tax cuts passed the Senate with only two Democratic votes. The passage of Medicare Part D was an overwhelmingly partisan vote. And Bush's attempt to privatize Social Security failed because it didn't attract any Democrats.

Sure, there is the occasional bipartisan success, like No Child Left Behind, that people like Norman Ornstein and David Brooks like to point to as an example of how Washington used to work. But the brutal truth is that Washington is a partisan place—and is only getting more so.

Say Democrats take back the House in 2012, and Obama wins a second term. With majorities once again in Congress, Obama could tackle the deficit with a Democratic set of solutions: chop military spending, impose a gas tax, raise taxes on the rich. Or say Republicans take the presidency in two years, along with the Senate. They could implement all the policies liberals hate, like slashing domestic spending, raising the retirement age, and flattening the tax code.

The party in charge probably wouldn't eliminate the debt altogether—that would require a combination of spending cuts and tax hikes that neither party could accomplish alone. But it would be a lot better than gridlock.

There are obvious challenges to a partisan deficit-reduction strategy. One is that a party would need to control the presidency, the Senate, and the House to make any progress—it wouldn't work with the government divided as it is now. Another is that when one party loses power, the other party could simply reverse its policies. Democrats could pass an enormous bill that the Republicans would promise to undo once they regained power, and vice versa, and so on. To prevent this kind of thing, there would have to be a broad consensus that deficit reduction itself is a good thing, even if there's disagreement about how it should be accomplished. Serious reductions would therefore be considered irreversible, the way tax cuts are now. (Of course, if such a consensus existed, a bipartisan solution might be possible after all.)

Ideally, instead of each party nullifying the other party's accomplishments, they'd build on them. Military cuts by Democrats would follow a retirement age hike by Republicans, which in turn would follow a tax hike on the rich by Democrats. Eventually, after a few election cycles, the debt would be gone. It wouldn't be a bipartisan solution so much as one of alternating partisanship.

Maybe this plan is unrealistic. But probably no more so than the current one.

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Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.

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