Thursday, October 22, 2009

Broder Confuses Budget Decisions With Public Policy Decisions

The use of committees to allow Congress to avoid making tough decisions? Hardly a new idea. Congress has used this method to obtain recommendations on base closures1 that must be accepted or rejected as a package, in lieu of debating and deciding the issues. It may not be a particularly courageous way to tackle the issue or deal with special interests or the concerns of Members of Congress whose states are affected, but... we're talking about Congress, so you do what you have to do.

But the idea of expanding this concept to the entire budget, eagerly embraced by David Broder, implicates a much broader set of concerns. It's not simply a context where Congress has decided the larger issues, such as recognizing that savings can be obtained and efficiencies realized by consolidating military bases, and the committee is left to work out the details. There are huge public policy decisions involved in setting tax rates, funding various government programs, and cutting or eliminating funding for various programs and initiatives.
The one barely possible benefit from this predictably futile partisan bloodbath is the opportunity it could offer to leverage support for a long-standing bipartisan effort to force Congress to confront the hard steps needed to put the nation on a safer fiscal course.

That chance was highlighted last week when Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana and nine other moderate Democrats wrote to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid asking that the debt-ceiling increase be tied to passage of bipartisan legislation creating a deficit-reduction commission whose recommendations would have to be quickly enacted or rejected by the House and Senate as a package.
But this proposal has nothing to do with "hard steps". Sorry, Senator Bayh, but if you were serious about this you could easily team up with your fellow "moderates" and draft up a proposal to balance the budget over a given number of years. Does Broder truly not realize that the reason Senators like Bayh want to delegate that task to a commission, reserving to Congress only an "up or down" vote, is that he doesn't want to be held responsible for either making the tough calls himself or for the consequences of those calls?

It's pretty easy to form a bipartisan commission that understands a mandate to recommend base closures that serve the nation's financial goals without detriment to its military goals. But larger tax and spending issues are much more complex, and have significant policy elements and ramifications. You can almost hear Broder's voice trembling with excitement:
But the odds are against [proponents of the commission]. Because such a commission is likely to propose both cuts in popular entitlement programs and tax increases whenever the country comes out of the current recession, those members on the ballot next November, including Reid and Pelosi, would much rather avoid any discussion of such steps.
Here, Broder highlights two things: First, that he imagines the budget commission will be composed of people who share his own policy goals - apparently focusing on increased taxes for the middle class and the slashing of programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security that significantly benefit the middle class and poor. Second, that politicians shouldn't be held responsible for the consequences of "balancing the budget" by deferring significant policy decisions to what amounts to a black box - they know what goes in, they get to see what comes out, but have no input or control into what happens in the interim.

Were specific members proposed for this committee, Broder would likely either be much more excited ("They really do agree with me!") or horrified ("They want to balance the budget by increasing taxes on capital gains, having a robust estate tax, closing tax loopholes for the rich, a one-time wealth tax on the rich, by taxing corporate profits diverted through offshore companies as if they're domestic, slashing the military budget....") His support anticipates the former - and he's probably correct, that Bayh and friends have an eye on new or increased taxes on the middle class and the slashing of popular entitlement programs, but lack the backbone to simply come out and make those proposals.

Seriously, what if the committee came back and said, "To maintain Social Security and Medicare spending, and to ensure their full funding for the indefinite future, we recommend that the military budget be halved, that funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan be reduced by 1/3 per year until totally eliminated in three years, and that funding for the Army be eliminated with all of its bases and facilities closed," Would Broder still be pretending that this proposal is merely about crunching numbers, and not a delegation of serious policy issues with significant short- and long-term ramifications for the country?

It must be nice to know, in advance, that no matter what Congress does it will always be somebody else's ox that gets gored.

1. These recommendations come from the bipartisan Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commissions (BRAC).

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