Sunday, July 31, 2011

Game of groans

Tonight's deal on the debt ceiling (assuming it passes, which remains uncertain) confirms Congress' burgeoning instinct to approach public policy like an irresponsible student approaches a pile of undone homework: by doing the absolute bare minimum at the last minute and begging for extensions on the rest.

They had to have a medium-term increase of the debt ceiling right now -- or at least promise they will any minute now, they super-duper pinky-swear -- to try to keep the stock markets from collapsing in panic over an unprecedented game of chicken that stopped being funny a long time ago. (There's also the pressing matter of what a federal default would mean for mortgage and credit card rates, but those are the concerns of the mere vast majority of Americans, who of course don't have enough money speech to be heard.)

But the other stuff? The specifics of deficit reduction, whether we'll ever again raise taxes for the rich from their lowest level since the 1950s, when we'll get over the Tea Party stuff and get back to trying to create some damn jobs instead of slashing spending in an economy struggling with a lack of spending? That all has to wait. There's Xbox to be played and August recesses to be had.

Both the conservative and progressive bases are complaining loudly about the deal, which pundits usually portray as the mark of a great compromise. In this case, though, it's the sign of a package that kicks the can on the most important parts, a proposal that isn't very good but could be much, much worse.

GOP leaders, boxed into a corner of their own making by the Tea Party's continual anti-tax howls, couldn't agree to anything that included anything that could, for sure, be called a tax increase. President Obama, boxed into a corner of his own making by both his nationally televised addresses and actually being right on the substance in this case, couldn't agree to anything that foreclosed, for sure, the possibility of new revenues to help the nation actually start paying for Medicare and defense and all of the other great things we like having.

After lots of wailing and gnashing of teeth, they both got what they wanted. Kinda. The debt ceiling compromise consists of (1) some cuts that both sides said they could live with all along, (2) an agreement to create a powerful committee to work on a mix of cuts and revenues to keep reducing the deficit, and (3) automatic cuts to defense (the GOP's baby) and domestic spending (the Democrats' baby) if Congress doesn't go along with the panel's ideas. (There also will be a vote on a constitutional "Balanced Budget Amendment," which would require enormous, unpopular budget cuts at the worst possible times and feels more like a show pony than something with real legs under it.)

If the triggered cuts come to pass, and they very well could, we may live to regret it. Deeply cutting the domestic discretionary budget -- the one that includes "win the future" stuff like education and scientific research and environmental protection -- while preserving tax breaks for the super-rich would be the political equivalent of eating our seed corn while standing in a fully stocked cornfield. On the bright side, the deal would spare Social Security, Medicaid, and low-income programs from the knife, so at least there's one true saving grace in the final scene of the awful game that our congressmen refused to stop playing while we were trying to sleep this summer.




1:30 PM  

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