First, some well-deserved kudos to the Senate’s “gang of six,” which came up with a strong, credible and balanced plan to deal with our long-term debt problem.
It was tough enough for Sens. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) and Mark Warner (D-Va.) to keep plugging away through months of ups and downs, and to put their own reputations on the line for a greater good.
It was even tougher in many ways for Sens. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) to risk a huge backlash from their respective party bases for taking on the most sacred of cows — and gutsy for Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) to challenge Grover Norquist and the “pledge” head-on.
And kudos to Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) to risk some obloquy from his fellow Republican leadership Members to step up and become the seventh group member.
All recognized that movement to deal with this huge problem required serious compromise on all sides.
Like the commission plans that preceded it, the group’s plan still has many details to write and plenty of flaws. But in its framework, it is sensitive to the effect of budget cuts on the most vulnerable among us and recognizes the foolishness of mindlessly cutting our seed corn — the programs that are investments in the future. And it aims to couple the necessary revenue increase with truly attractive and constructive tax reform.
As for revenues, the most common talking point of Republicans in Congress and on Fox News is, “We don’t have a revenue problem, we have a spending problem.”
Here are some facts for freshmen who have heard the talking point and, at times, repeated it. The Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 were done through budget reconciliation to avoid the Senate’s 60-vote hurdle. Reconciliation in the Senate is not supposed to be used for anything that increases deficits.
The rules and numbers were manipulated to use the surpluses built up during the late 1990s to offset the costs of the tax cuts. The tax cuts were designed to expire after 10 years to keep from violating the rules about revenue drain after the 10-year period and to keep from injecting into the official record the consensus projections that if the tax cuts — backloaded and excluding a fix in the alternative minimum tax to disguise their cost — were indeed extended, they would lead to massive deficits in the years that followed.
Guess what? They were extended (by a Democratic Congress and a Democratic president) and are leading to massive deficits in the years that followed. Indeed, if they had operated as the Republican president and Republican Congresses designed them and enacted them, we would have a mere debt headache ahead, not the debt cancer/heart attack we face.
Revenues are at the lowest point in more than 60 years as a share of our economy, partly as a result of the recession, which will pass, but largely because of those continuing tax cuts. It was irresponsible to design a program to have tax cuts expire after 10 years with no intention at all of allowing them to expire, to mask their deleterious effect on our debt.