Joe Manchin, Grover Norquist, and the Economic Consensus of #ThisTown

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
March 18 2014 12:59 PM

Joe Manchin, Grover Norquist, and the Economic Consensus of #ThisTown

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Joe Manchin is ready to uppercut entitlement spending.

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Last night I joined a group of hacks, economists, bankers, politicians, and intellectuals for a dinner preceding the Atlantic's annual Economy Summit. These things are perks/curses for the longtime D.C. reporter—free dinner, stimulating conversation, some gritting of teeth as people ask you why both parties can't just come together and pass a long-term economic revival plan to help America beat China. It's interesting to pull your head up from the trough of daily politics and meet people who can't believe how stupid and nasty it's all become.

Happily, this year's dinner included an actual politician—West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin—and was kept on the record. Manchin was separated by only one seat from Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform, who used his time to deliver short remarks about how, since 2011, the stock market had behaved the same whether Congress was in or out of session (this was new), and how Republican-run states were providing real-time policy experiments, and proving his side right.

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"What about California?" snapped one columnist. "California's got a balanced budget."

"Right, but look where people are moving," responded Norquist.

So, the kind of event where that response ended the exchange. It had been a while since I'd seen Manchin riff on fiscal policy, and he was exactly what the room wanted—a Democrat deeply concerned with long-term debt and ready to cut entitlement spending.

"Republicans and Democrats can't even agree on the definition of revenue," he said. "What I would do, in a heartbeat, is I would change Social Security completely. I would do it on an inflationary basis, as far as paying into payroll taxes, and change that, to keep us stabalized as far as cash flow. I'd do COLAs—I'd talk about COLA for 250 percent of poverty guidelines."

The macroeconomist Peter Morici interrupted Manchin. "You basically cut benefits to old people?" he asked.

"No, a rich old person, you won't get the COLAs," said Manchin. "Do you want chained CPI? I can live with either one."

Manchin stayed through the whole dinner, and hung out afterward, as a spokesman made sure nothing untoward happened. Toward the end, the senator turned to Norquist and pressured him to go easy on Republicans who might, theoretically, cut a deal that increased revenue dynamically. The tax cut icon was unmoved.

"In 2015," he said, "Sen. McConnell and Sen. Schumer will get something done." I.e., Democrats would lose control of the Senate and Republicans would force a deal.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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