Fiscal Truth and the Blame Game

So we are arriving at the sequester moment of truth, and the “spinning” from all involved has reached feverish pitch. Who is to blame, is there a “scare game” being run by the White House, whose idea was it to actually have a sequester, did the President move the goalposts, and on and on we go.

So what is actually going on? The President has said that he wants a deal to avoid the sequester that has both revenue and cuts, a balanced approach. The Republicans say that the President “got his tax increase” after the fiscal cliff deal, and revenues are off the table. The sides are at loggerheads, and with all of the finger pointing it can be difficult to figure out how we got here and how we get out of here. Are both Parties responsible equally?

If you listen to folks like Joe Scarborough in the morning you might actually believe that President Obama was mostly responsible. Others who have made a living from appearing to be “centrist” or “bi-partisan” have weighed in by saying that both parties are equally responsible for the mess. Chris Matthews of “Hardball” was on Morning Joe talking about the Democrats “refusal to cut spending” and how Democrats should just go right to entitlement reform without any concessions from Republicans on revenues because revenues were just too difficult for Republicans to compromise on. We have someone that I respect, unlike many of my Democratic friends, David Brooks, writing a column on the sequester, in which he hits both sides pretty hard. His criticism of the President led him to write the following in that column:

Sequestration allows the White House to do this all over again. The president hasn’t actually come up with a proposal to avert sequestration, let alone one that is politically plausible.

He does have a vague and politically convenient concept. (Tax increases on the rich!) He does have a chance to lead the country into a budget showdown with furloughed workers and general mayhem, for which people will primarily blame Republicans. And he does have the chance to achieve the same thing he has achieved so frequently over the past two years, political success and legislative mediocrity.

I like Brooks because I think he wants to get to a solution that requires both sides to give some. But most media folks, be they local, state, or national try to give some functional equivalence to coverage because they believe “fairness” requires it. In Brooks case he feels, (in my opinion), that his objectivity will be called into question if he does not show some of that “equivalence” in his comments on the fiscal situation. Unlike Scarborough Brooks is willing to admit error, which led him to talk about the “equivalency” issue with Ezra Klein over at the Washington Post after the publication of the above mentioned column. Brooks admits to Klein that his criticism of the President was off the mark, and actually appended a “correction” to his column. That “correction”?

The above column was written in a mood of justified frustration over the fiscal idiocy that is about to envelop the nation. But in at least one respect I let my frustration get the better of me. It is true, as the director of the Congressional Budget Office has testified, that the administration has not proposed a specific anti-sequester proposal that can be scored or passed into law. It is not fair to suggest, as I did, that tax hikes for the rich is the sole content of the president’s approach. The White House has proposed various constructive changes to spending levels and entitlement programs. These changes are not nearly adequate in my view, but they do exist, and I should have acknowledged the balanced and tough-minded elements in the president’s approach.

Brooks was fair enough to admit error. And if we could look at this without rancor or pre-dispositions you would have to see that Brooks, and others, are just struggling mightily because they want to appear even handed, but when faced with real numbers they just collapse. Who is the negotiator who has put both revenues and cuts on the table? Only President Obama has. You may believe that what he has offered is insufficient, and you may be right. But how do you ever find out if one party just says that it is ENTIRELY my way, or the highway. That would be the Republicans. Scarborough and folks like him have the nerve to say they favor Simpson-Bowles, and then speak out of the other side of their mouth by saying that the President has “already gotten revenues”. Really? The President got $600 billion over ten years by compromising on the rescission of the Bush tax cuts for those earning above $400,000 in January. Simpson-Bowles had built into their BASELINE $800 billion from that increase, as well as about $1.2 trillion in additional revenues from tax reform. (Closing loopholes, etc.)Total revenues from Simpson-Bowles are over $2 trillion. Despite that fact you have Republican apologists trying to cover the Republican negotiating position of ZERO compromise by distorting the issues and blaming the only negotiator with both cuts and revenues on the table.

Finally let us look at the contention that the President got revenues the last time, and the sequester was meant only for cuts. (The Bob Woodward position) The sequester was designed as a trigger, to be used only if the so called “super-committee” failed to achieve the requisite amount of deficit reduction. With Republicans refusing to enter a “big deal” on deficit reduction we are left with a series of small deals to achieve the overall goal. So if someone says they are for the Simpson-Bowles framework I am at a loss to see how Republican refusal to enter a “big deal” somehow obviates the need for revenues to be a part of the overall deficit reduction package. Just because the Republicans have insisted on cutting the deficit reduction pie into smaller pieces it does not mean that the overall framework changes. Each piece just gets smaller. And the revenues included in the larger framework must be included in each smaller piece.

I understand that some honest brokers believe that the President has not made sufficient effort on the issue of entitlement reform and spending restraint. And I think people like Brooks believe that if the Republicans negotiated honestly that the President would be spotted for an unwillingness to take bold deficit reduction steps that would anger his base. But they, in their heart of hearts, understand that the Republicans have, through their intransigent negotiating position, exempted the President from that criticism. We just have not gotten there. So many of them have chosen to cut out the Republican middleman and issue the criticism anyway. But cold hard facts are difficult to just swat away, unless you live in the Republican House. Brooks admitted that to Ezra Klein, and in his column addendum. The President, at least for today, is immunized from criticism not because he is perfect, but because he does not have a serious negotiating partner on fiscal issues.

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