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Fiscal cliff looming, the 'Gang of Six' rides again

June 09, 2012|By Jon Healey
  • Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget graphic on the "fiscal cliff"
Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget graphic on the "fiscal… (Committee for a Responsible…)

The public has a famously low opinion of Congress, even though people tend to hold a less disparaging view of their own representatives. The last two years have been especially tough on the institution's reputation, a response to the body's relentless brinkmanship and paralyzing partisanship in the face of a slow economy.

So it is with some trepedation that I throw out a little love for a handful of senators still seeking bipartisan agreement on a plan to bring the federal government back to fiscal responsibility. The core of this group is the so-called Gang of Six senators who have coalesced around the recommendations of Erskine Bowles, a Democrat who was chief of staff to President Clinton, and former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.), the co-chairmen of the White House's National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform.

The conventional wisdom is that Congress won't try to do anything meaningful about the federal budget gap or burgeoning debt until after the election. Then, lawmakers will have no choice but to act: Something on the order of $600 billion worth of tax increases and spending cuts are due to go into effect on Jan. 1, 2013. Simply canceling those hikes and cuts would cost more than $7.5 trillion over the coming decade, according to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. But letting them go into effect, the Congressional Budget Office warns, could trigger another recession.

In this case, the conventional wisdom makes a lot of sense. The fiscal problems have become a wedge issue for Democrats, who relish forcing Republicans to vote against tax increases on "millionaires and billionaires." They want to continue doing so for as long as they can. Similarly, Republicans have no political incentive to solve the deficit and debt problems that they pin on President Obama.

Nevertheless, Politico reports that the Gang of Six and a smattering of other senators are working secretly to try to avert January's "fiscal cliff" by adopting a multiyear plan to overhaul the tax code, rein in entitlement spending, shrink the Pentagon and cut domestic discretionary programs. They're not exactly being altruistic; some of these lawmakers reportedly are concerned that voters will hold them responsible for the fiscal mess if they sit on their hands until November. Yet the fact that they're doing so quietly suggests they really are trying to get a deal, rather than simply trying to preserve their own reputations.

Some contrarians will argue that bipartisanship is bunk and that what the country really needs is for one side (their's) to stick to its guns and win the argument. Good luck with that. Compromise is an essential element of the legislative process because Americans have divergent interests on just about every issue.

And when it comes to the federal government's long-term fiscal problems, there will be no solution without concessions by liberals and conservatives alike. For instance, the GOP's "cut, cap and balance" plan is built around returning to historic federal spending levels. But that's going to be all but impossible with an aging population that imposes significantly higher costs than previous generations did. At the same time, Democrats have to stop trying to preserve "Medicare as we know it," along with other federal entitlements, because the cost increases are unsustainable.

With that in mind, kudos to the senators who are reaching across the aisle in hopes of solving the budget mess before the government plunges over the fiscal cliff. Their efforts are likely to be futile, but at least they're trying.

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