This week’s resounding vote in Ohio repudiating a Republican antiunion law should provide a clear warning to the congressional deficit-reduction super committee, especially its GOP members.
The lopsided ballot-initiative result repealing Republican Gov. John Kasich’s prized SB 5 legislation restricting collective-bargaining rights for public employees reaffirms a lesson evident from the past three decades of budget wars in Washington: It is virtually impossible to sell voters on a significant retrenchment of public benefits without bipartisan support and a compelling case that the changes are linked to broadly shared sacrifice.
That message is especially important for Republicans, because one of the biggest hurdles to a comprehensive deficit agreement is the expectation among many in the GOP that after the 2012 election they will hold unified control of Congress and the White House and can simply impose their preferred solutions without compromise or political cost. History—underlined by this week’s Ohio result—suggests that expectation represents a huge gamble.
In many ways, the Ohio legislation that voters overturned this week followed the model that many Republicans envision for 2013 in Washington. With unified control of the governorship and both chambers of the state Legislature, state Republicans passed sweeping legislation limiting the collective-bargaining rights of public employees, including police and firefighters. The bill, which also rolled back pension and health benefits and banned strikes, passed the state Senate narrowly and the state House comfortably, in each case without support from a single Democrat. When Kasich signed the bill last March, he explicitly portrayed it as the sort of economizing that would be required to cut taxes. “Helping local governments reduce their costs so they can begin lightening Ohio’s tax burden helps us compete better against states that are far friendlier to job creators,” he declared.
But unions quickly obtained enough signatures to place a repeal initiative on the ballot. Once they did, they effectively inverted Kasich’s argument: An early ad from the repeal campaign charged that politicians were “blaming public employees” for the state’s budget woes even as they were “funneling over $100 million in tax breaks to their corporate campaign contributors.” Though Kasich barnstormed to defend his legislation, the repeal initiative got more than three-fifths of the vote. And as Steve Rosenthal, cofounder of the Democratic data firm the Atlas Project, noted in an analysis this week, the repeal passed in all but six of the state’s counties, with margins consistently exceeding President Obama’s in 2008.
Kasich’s experience should be a red flag for congressional Republicans because it so closely approximates the strategy many of them envision. Most Republicans understandably like their odds of winning the White House, and majorities in the Senate and House of Representatives, next year. By holding those cards in 2013, they believe they can pass a deficit-slashing budget on a party-line basis that would dramatically shrink entitlement programs—by converting Medicaid into a block grant and Medicare into a voucher system—without including any tax increases (and maybe cutting taxes further). That glimmering possibility is one reason so many in the GOP are reluctant to strike a deal now in which Democrats would accept entitlement cuts in return for Republican acquiescence to tax increases.
But the Ohio vote shows how difficult in practice it would be for Republicans, even if they win unified control in 2013, to hold public support while cutting entitlements and maintaining (or expanding) tax cuts for the wealthy without any bipartisan cover. Since 1980, Republicans have tried three times to retrench federal entitlements on a party-line basis: Social Security under Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, and Medicare under Newt Gingrich in 1995. Each effort failed—and helped precipitate GOP losses in the next election.
That consistent history—and this week’s big uprising against Kasich—underscore the validity of the axiom that Gene Sperling, director of Obama’s National Economic Council, coined in a recent speech: “Nobody likes deficit-reduction plans. Successful deficit-reduction plans are agreements that everybody hates equally in an even and fair way.” Balance and equitably shared sacrifice is precisely what Ohio voters believed SB 5 lacked.
The odd thing about the super committee’s waiting game is that there’s little mystery about what a balanced proposal should contain. The Simpson-Bowles and Domenici-Rivlin deficit-reduction commissions, and the bipartisan Senate Gang of Six, all produced broadly overlapping blueprints. At a time when federal revenue, measured as a share of the economy, has fallen to its lowest point since 1950, and payments to individuals (mostly through entitlement programs) consume more than three-fifths of the federal budget, there’s no secret to the formula for restoring fiscal sustainability.
The questions surrounding the committee—and the larger deficit debate—are entirely political. Neither party alone can pass a response of the magnitude this problem demands. Tax increases and entitlement cuts are each the key to the other. Democrats cannot accept the latter without the former. For Republicans, it’s the reverse. Probably the only way to pass either and live to tell about it is to pass both. This week’s earthquake in Ohio shows what happens when politicians ignore that straightforward lesson.
This article appears in the November 12, 2011, edition of National Journal Magazine.