You could almost forget, sitting there, that those whom Alan Simpson called “the workers of the dark arts” -- the lobbyists, the interest groups, the ideologues -- were waiting to pounce just outside the hearing room, to end this bipartisan “adult conversation.” It was all so civil and positive, as if two years of bitter ideological battles over the size and nature of government had never taken place. Even Rep. John Spratt, D-S.C., sat somewhat startled as Reps. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Jeb Hensarling of Texas, two leading House Republicans serving on the president’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform -- better known as the deficit commission -- saluted Spratt as an honorable colleague who had moved the budget debate forward. “I wish you’d said it before,” said Spratt, the soon-to-depart chairman of the budget committee, to laughter in the room. “We never did sit down and… search for common ground.”
But will they now? Interviewed after unveiling of the commission’s final report – which called for $3.9 trillion in deficit cuts over ten years -- both liberal and conservative members described arriving at a couple of common realizations after eight months of study: one, of just how deep America’s fiscal hole was; and two, just how central the issue had become to the concerns of average Americans worried about their children’s futures. “One thing we all learned on this commission is that the problem is much bigger than we thought,” said Bruce Reed, the executive director. “Americans went through budget crises of their own over the past two years, and they want us to deal with ours.”
Accordingly, some political courage was in evidence. Some Democrats began to gingerly talk about touching their “third rail” -- entitlement reform -- while some Republicans talked about raising more tax revenues by reforming the tax code. “Every member of this commission gets it: This debt is like a cancer,” co-chairman Erskine Bowles said afterwards. “There’s no turning back.… Together I think we have started an adult conversation.”
Perhaps, but a conversation is one thing. A vote in Congress is something entirely different. Interest groups and lobbyists don’t care about conversations, but they do care about votes. It was no surprise that Simpson, Bowles’ Republican counterpart and a colorful former Wyoming senator, opened the meeting by warning of the political attacks to come. There are “groups” all over Washington that have been “waiting for a long time to chew this one to pieces," he said. "They will pull out all the stops.”
Indeed, within hours of the meeting, the attacks began from both sides. Tamara Draut of Demos, a liberal think tank, called the commission members “out of touch” and said their plan “ignores the need for immediate public investments to spur job creation, relies too heavily on discretionary spending cuts, and slashes Social Security at a time when fewer Americans can count on a secure retirement.” On the right, Anton Davies of George Mason University called the spending cuts “window dressings,” arguing that the commission has proposed only “one-tenth of what we need to balance the budget.”
Yet even outside the hearing room one does feel the slow gathering of a consensus, like wisps of humid air before a storm. Among the bellwethers in determining if that consensus ever gathers force will be Paul Ryan and Jeb Hensarling, both of whom withheld their final votes on the plan but made positive noises that clearly delighted Bowles and Simpson. “I believe this commission has been a success,” said Ryan, echoing Bowles’ sentiment that “it has helped us move this conversation more to the adult level.” Hensarling actually suggested that he’d “like to see this plan come to the floor,” albeit likely without his vote.
But both men know the Republican House leader, incoming Speaker John Boehner, has not made the commitment that outgoing Speaker Nancy Pelosi did to holding a vote on the deficit commission proposal, even if it does get the requisite 14 votes. Both Ryan and Hensarling know their political leadership doesn’t want to give President Obama any kind of major victory in the next two years, even if they are all on the same side of the issue. So the No. 1 question for Washington in the coming months will be which is the stronger force: adult conversation or the dark arts?