What’s in a number? When it comes to President Obama’s deficit commission, it’s everything and nothing.
After months of languid deliberations and about a week or two of intense negotiations, the panel’s co-chairmen lined up only 11 of the 14 votes needed to officially recommend their sweeping plan to Congress. By the standard that Obama set back in February, that’s a failure.
But if the question is whether the president’s panel will help crack the political and ideological gridlock on deficit issues, the commission is almost certain to prove itself far more successful than anybody – probably including Obama -- dared imagine as recently as a few weeks ago.
In the real world, it never made any difference how many of the panel members endorsed a recommendation. The commission never had any statutory authority to force a vote in Congress on its proposals. Whether two or 10 or all 18 of the members endorsed the sweeping plan drafted by the co-chairs, Republican Alan Simpson and Democrat Erskine Bowles, Congress could still do whatever it wanted with the proposals.
What really mattered was whether the proposals, which skewer almost every sacred cow in the federal budget and would reduce deficits by almost $4 trillion over 10 years, would actually nudge Democrats and Republicans into facing those “hard choices’’ that both parties talk about incessantly but never make.
The answer to that question is almost certainly “yes.” The boldness and originality of the plan have already changed the debate. Far more important, however, is the array of political heavyweights who have jumped onboard. The fact that lawmakers from both parties were willing to embrace heretical violations of party orthodoxy – Republicans supporting tax increases, and Democrats supporting cuts in Social Security – means that the paralyzing ideological rigidity of the parties has been severely weakened.
Consider for a moment just who signed up for what today. Hard-line Republican senators like Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Mike Crapo of Idaho are putting their names behind a plan that would raise taxes by $80 billion a year. Coburn, one of the staunchest anti-spending conservatives in the Senate, is already under fire from Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform. And one of the most powerful liberals in the Senate, Dick Durbin of Illinois, is supporting proposals to raise the retirement age.
Those are heretical deviations from party dogma, and they aren’t coming from the usual cast of prestigious but retired party elders. These are very public positions, commitments of a sort, from powerful politicians who are at this moment locked in what they see as mortal combat. These are people whose authority is overwhelmingly tied to the power of their party and to party discipline.
Something very big happened today. Will Congress actually pass the Simpson-Bowles plan or some variant of it? Almost certainly not. The plan simply includes too many massive political undertakings at once – Social Security cuts, tax increases, fundamental tax reform, and Medicare overhaul – to be carried out in the next one or two years.
But will it end up as just the latest in a long line of blue-ribbon doorstops that are forgotten the day after they are produced? Don’t bet on it. Simpson and Bowles electrified Washington when they introduced their original plan three weeks ago, instantly provoking howls of protest from pundits, politicians, and lobbyists. A funny thing happened, though: People suddenly became interested in the panel and started debating and arguing and writing about its ideas.
It turned out that the ideas weren’t as “unacceptable” as House Speaker Nancy Pelosisaid they were. It turned out that the scathing denunciations by Norquist, who crucifies any Republican who even hints at breaking his no-higher-taxes pledge, didn’t stop prominent Republicans from signing up.
It may not sound like much. But in Washington, that’s a big deal.