Magical things happen if you sit long enough behind closed doors with your ideological opposites, sparring over how to get control of the deficit. Glib solutions (cut waste, fraud and abuse) and ideological imperatives (no tax increases, hands off entitlements) that sound fine when you don't really understand the problem or have any real responsibility for fixing it suddenly begin to seem ignorant and irresponsible.
That's my best guess, anyway, for why many of the people in Washington making the most sense now about the deficit are the ones who spent time in a deficit commission last year. It's hard to go through that experience and come out making the same old “not-me” demands you know will kill any compromise. Not impossible, obviously, since Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., emerged saying he wouldn't balance the budget on the backs of Montanans, and five of the six House members on the commission refused to back the plan and retreated to their ideological corners.
But kudos to GOP Sens. Tom Coburn and Mike Crapo for being willing to think about tax increases, and to Democratic Sens. Dick Durbin and Kent Conrad for being willing to think about taking on Social Security and other entitlements. As Bruce Bartlett described here, Coburn's and Crapo's heresy brought a sharp counterattack from anti-tax enforcer Grover Norquist, whose view is that any tax increase, ever, is bad.
Norquist has huge influence, but the willingness of influential Republicans to take him on is an encouraging sign that a movement that started last summer might be gathering steam. Then, former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan, former Reagan budget director David Stockman attacked GOP obstinacy on taxes, and conservative economist Martin Friedman suggested Republicans could support new revenues if they came from cutting tax expenditures such as the home mortgage interest deduction. That's exactly what the deficit commission proposed.
If a willingness to think about raising taxes is a sign of seriousness for Republicans, fixing Social Security is the same test for Democrats, and few pass. The Norquist-style enforcer is the Obama administration, whose OMB director, Jack Lew, declared recently that "looking to the next two decades, Social Security does not cause our deficits." Baloney. CBO projections and Lew's own budget (see p. 453 of "Analytical Perspectives") show that Social Security has been cash-negative since last year and will be as far as the eye can see.
True, as fellow blogger Joe White points out, the shortfall isn't very big now. But CBO projects Social Security's cash deficit at $548 billion over the next 10 years, and that's real money. Fixing it is much easier than fixing Medicare, but only if everyone agrees there's a problem. The trust fund is a political and moral obligation, but cashing it in requires borrowing money -- which Lew should know better than anyone. Too bad he and President Obama didn't spend time sitting in the room with Coburn, Crapo and the rest of the members of the president's own commission.
George Hager is a member of the USA Today editorial board.
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