Competing, incompatible conversations

The deadline for the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction — better known as the super-committee — is still a few days away, but even the most naive optimists are willing to concede the panel will fail, as it was destined to do from the start. The Washington Post reports that members, probably tomorrow, will simply concede defeat.

There’s no mystery whatsoever as to why this process has failed so spectacularly. While the media will cling to the frame it feels obligated to push — “both sides” are always to blame for everything — any fair examination at what’s transpired shows otherwise.

Consider what the Democratic chair of the super-committee said this morning.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) was not optimistic Sunday, saying the Bush tax cuts remained the “sticking divide” preventing the supercommittee from reaching a deal to reduce the federal deficit by at least $1.2 trillion over the next 10 years.

“There is one sticking divide, and that is the issue of what I call shared sacrifice. Where everybody contributes at a very challenging time for our country,” she said on CNN’s “State of the Union,” referring to the Bush tax cuts. “The wealthiest of Americans, those who earn over $1 million a year, have to share too. There’s that line in the sand, and there aren’t any Republicans willing to cross it.”

Democrats have been willing to do just about anything to succeed. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) admitted this morning that super-committee Dems “put every single sacred cow on the table” in order to help reach an agreement, suggesting major entitlement reforms were very much a part of the mix.

But a deal would have required Republicans accept some tax increases. Indeed, the basics of a debt-reduction deal have always been painfully obvious: Dems would accept spending cuts, Republicans would accept new revenue, and the two sides would haggle over the ratio.

Except that proved impossible, not only because Republicans refused to consider any tax increases on any one, but because those same Republicans actually decided to use the super-committee process as a vehicle to push for more tax cuts — which necessarily would have created more debt, not less, and make the goal harder, not easier, to reach.

At a certain level, the very idea of including Bush-era tax breaks in the discussion probably seems bizarre to anyone outside the GOP caucus. The panel’s members were given one task: reach a deal on debt reduction that totaled at least $1.2 trillion over the next decade. With this assignment in mind, Republicans on the committee, from the outset, decided that their principal goal was locking in tax cuts that (a) are largely responsible for the massive debt; and (b) would make the debt much worse going forward.

This underscores why failure was inevitable: the parties can’t reach an agreement if they’re not even having the same conversation.

What was the purpose of the super-committee? Ostensibly, it was supposed to reach a bipartisan agreement to reduce the debt. That was the description on the page, and that’s the mandate that drove Democratic efforts.

Republicans saw it differently. The point, they said, is to reduce the size of government.

It’s hard to overstate how easy this would have been if two mainstream political parties simply wanted to find $1.2 trillion in savings over the next 10 years. A straightforward blueprint requiring some modest concessions from both sides could have been worked out in an afternoon. Indeed, before the radicalization of the Republican Party, policymakers have done this many times.

In the five fiscal grand bargains of the 1980s and early 1990s, tax increases accounted for an average of 61 cents of every dollar saved. In fact, in President Reagan’s 1982 and 1984 budget-trimming deals, more than 80 percent of deficit reductions came from tax increases. What’s more, the deals passed with majority support from both parties. Mr. Reagan may be remembered as an antitax hero, but he actually raised taxes 11 times over the course of his presidency, all in the name of fiscal responsibility.

Any suggestion that Republicans have always been as irresponsible as they are now is simply not true. The GOP used to be quite sincere about fiscal responsibility.

It’s difficult to imagine today, but taxing the rich wasn’t always a major flash point of American political life. From the end of World War II to the eve of the Reagan administration, the parties fought over social spending — Democrats pushing for more, Republicans demanding less. But once the budget was fixed, both parties saw taxes as an otherwise uninteresting mechanism to raise the money required to pay the bills. Eisenhower, Nixon and Ford each fought for higher taxes, while the biggest tax cut was secured by John F. Kennedy, whose across-the-board tax reductions were actually opposed by the majority of Republicans in the House. The distribution of the tax burden wasn’t really up for debate: Even after the Kennedy cuts, the top tax rate stood at 70 percent — double its current level. Steeply progressive taxation paid for the postwar investments in infrastructure, science and education that enabled the average American family to get ahead.

That party is long gone.

The conventional wisdom tells us Republicans are desperate to reduce the deficit and address the debt. This obviously isn’t true — if it were, they would stop demanding more tax breaks and start accepting more increases.

Rather, Republicans are desperate to reduce the size of government, and are using a massive deficit — which the GOP is largely responsible for creating — as an excuse to do what they want to do anyway.

The conditions offer a compelling pretense, but that’s really all it is. The changes Republican officials are pushing are the same changes the party wants regardless of fiscal circumstances.

It’s why GOP members of the super-committee demanded $3.7 trillion in tax breaks, moving in the opposition direction of the committee’s goals. It’s also why the House Republicans’ budget, as crafted by Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), claimed to be focused on deficit reduction, but actually added $6 trillion to the debt over the next decade, due entirely to the GOP’s demands for more tax cuts.

Why would anyone cut taxes while trying to reduce the deficit? They wouldn’t, unless deficit reduction wasn’t really the point.

Given all of this, of course the super-committee failed. It had to. Democrats were trying to reduce the debt; Republicans were trying to shrink the government. The parties even agreed on the goal, making agreement on the solution literally impossible.