Sunday, October 24, 2010

Broder's Bizarre Budgetary Bipartisanship

David Broder, commenting on the U.K. government's emphasis on balancing its budget, shares this gem:
Britain's budget deficit, now 11.4 percent of the size of its overall economy, is not that much larger than the United States' -- 8.9 percent -- but the debate has been similar in both countries.
Seriously, Broder believes that there's no significant difference between a budget deficit that's 11.4% of GDP and one that's 8.9% of GDP? In terms of the U.S. economy that difference translates into almost $170 billion dollars. Pocket change?

It is also important to look at the current U.S. budget deficit in the context of the recession. As Paul Krugman has pointed out, the issue is not so much that government spending is rising beyond the norm, but that government revenues have plummeted. That has exaggerated the size of the deficit, but in a much less alarming manner than if tax revenues had been sustained:
Government spending has continued to rise more or less on its pre-crisis trend. Revenue has plunged, because the economy is deeply depressed.
Broder would apparently have us believe that he has no appreciable understanding of the difference in the social safety net between the U.K. and the U.S., that he has no understanding of the nature and extent of the economic crisis in the U.K. and how dependent the U.K. had become on its bloated financial sector, and that he has no understanding of the difference between the U.K.'s parliamentary system of government and our own system. I suspect that he has more knowledge than his arguments suggest.
My British friends tell me that it is only because of the two-party coalition that Cameron can take these risks. If he were dependent only on a minority Conservative Party, the risk of a public meltdown -- similar to what is happening in France -- would be too great.
It works like this: If you have a parliamentary majority you can pass your legislation on a majority vote. If you do not, certain key votes such as a budget can trigger a "no confidence" vote initiated by the opposition parties, and if you lose that vote your government falls. Thus a minority government is weak, and must work with opposition parties to avoid losing no confidence votes. The parties prefer majority governments, where they can often ignore the opposition parties' complaints and demands. But a strong coalition can put them into a similar position. As long as the coalition holds, the government cannot fall to a no confidence vote.

Broder is thus correct that the coalition government between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats allows P.M. David Cameron to push legislation and budget cuts that would be "risky" were he leading a minority government. But he ignores the fact that this is far from Cameron's ideal. What he would much prefer is to have a majority government, not a coalition government, and thereby to be able to do what he wants without cutting deals with or making concessions to the Liberal Democrats.

To the extent that we would look for a "similar breakthrough" in the U.S. system, it would not be the two parties joining hands and acting as a massive coalition. It would be... politicians "crossing the aisle" or the Independents in the Senate choosing to caucus with the Democrats such that they obtain or maintain a majority. Funny, Broder doesn't recognize that as a "similar breakthrough". Another thing that would bring us closer to the parliamentary system Broder seems to idealize would be the elimination of the filibuster.

So what does Broder pretend would be similar to a parliamentary coalition government? Um... no surprise.
If Republicans emerge next month with sufficient leverage in the House and Senate to approach Obama with a proposition, they could insist that he "do a Cameron" when it comes to federal spending: a radical rollback now in the welfare state in return for a two-year truce on such policy questions as repeal of the health-care law.
Did you catch that? If the Republicans win the House and gain votes in the Senate, Broder wants the President to accept from them the promise that they won't do something that they cannot do - pass a repeal of health care reform that would fail in the Senate or, if by some miracle it did not, be vetoed - in return for having the Democrats agree to "a radical rollback... in the welfare state", meaning "slash Medicare and Social Security". It's not entirely clear to me how you would simultaneously preserve healthcare reform while slashing Medicare, but I don't think Broder's primary concern here is consistency.

Even better, there's good reason to believe that the talk of repealing healthcare reform is nothing more than that - talk. The Republicans won't want to repeal the popular elements of the reform bill, but they're tied inexorably to the components that are unpopular.

You want to kill the individual mandate? Then you have to return to having people denied health insurance over their pre-existing conditions. You want to defund Medicaid expansion? You'll not only remove coverage from millions of working class Americans, you'll put a serious financial burden on the states, "red states" included. You want to reverse the Medicare cuts? Not only will you make David Broder cry (what good is bipartisanship, after all, if you increase Medicare spending) but you'll deprive other reforms of necessary funding. You want to restore the Medicare prescription benefit "donut hole"? It might make Broder happy but it will cost you at the polls. You want to repeal the entire bill despite the sacrifice of reforms that are at least in part necessary, popular or both? You'll increase the projected budget deficit.

So not only is Broder asking for massive concessions from the Democrats based upon their promise not to do something that they cannot do, the hollowness of the proposed gesture runs much deeper. And all the Democrats have to give up in return for the usual nothing are the party's biggest achievements over the past century. What a deal.

At the same time there's no reason to doubt that the Republicans could join with the Democrats to effect some tweaks and modifications of Social Security to improve its long-term fiscal health. Broder has been around more than long enough to know that's happened in the past - tweak the tax rate, tweak the age of eligibility, and voila. So really, if the idea is to balance the budget and preserve the long-term viability of Social Security, it's a no-brainer.

Medicare is much more complicated, and as previously alluded the reform bill includes provisions that are meant to help make Medicare more cost-effective, reduce waste and improve care. Yes, it's possible and necessary to continue in that direction, but do you have any sense that the Republican Party is going to emerge from this election and tell the "Keep Your Government Hands Off My Medicare" faction, ginned up by Republican lies about "death panels", that they're cutting Medicare? Seriously - which party was responsible for the last massive, unfunded expansion of Medicare? Surely Broder knows.

Broder is probably right, that freed of the obligation to take responsibility for the cuts - "It's what the President asked of us" - the Republicans might go along with slashing Medicare. But there would not be even the slightest hint of "bipartisanship" involved. It would be a colossally stupid, self-desctructive act by the Democrats. This is one of the reasons we're trying to balance the budget with "commissions" instead of legislation - neither party wants to be responsible for Medicare cuts and, Broder's wishes having been duly noted, as they cannot find a way to vote for significant cuts without serious ramifications at the polls, they're looking for an approach that let's them pretend that "no one is to blame" - that the cuts sort of, somehow happened on their own.

What about the items on the President's agenda that he couldn't get past Republican filibusters and self-serving Blue Dogs and a certain independent? A carbon tax? Immigration reform? Why doesn't Broder imagine President Obama requesting Republican cooperation on those issues, where their support would make a genuine and necessary difference, as opposed to having them provide a meaningless concession? (Yes, that's a rhetorical question. Here's another: Would Broder be on board with a plan that rolled the programs included in his conception of the U.S. welfare state "back" to the level that will exist in the U.K. after the current round of reforms?)

Update: More on the British budget cuts:
In a bid to streamline its armed forces and help reduce its daunting levels of national debt, the British government on Tuesday announced plans to cut its military personnel by 10 percent, scrap 40 percent of the army’s artillery and tanks, withdraw all of its troops from Germany within 10 years, and cut 25,000 civilian jobs in its Defense Ministry.
Can we expect Broder to push for similar budget cuts here, or doesn't that fit his notions of "bipartisanship"?


  1. You're headed into Agnew (Safire) territory here, although he might have said "Babbling baboons of bipartisanship."

  2. Heh. They kinda spoiled the use of alliteration in political commentary, didn't they.... ;-)


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