Supercommittee Failure and ‘Both Sides’

Are Republicans mostly to blame for the supercommittee failure?

Greg Sargent declares, “No, `both sides’ aren’t equally to blame for supercommittee failure.”

Here’s why the supercommittee is failing, in one sentence: Democrats wanted the rich to pay more in taxes towards deficit reduction, and Republicans wanted the rich to pay less in taxes towards deficit reduction.

Any news outlet that doesn’t convey this basic fact to readers and viewers with total clarity is obscuring, rather than illuminating, what actually happened here.

I agree with those who have argued that supercommittee failure doesn’t really matter all that much, and that the obsession with the deficit is itself misguided and makes solutions to the actual crisis at hand — unemployment — far less likely to happen.

But since the press is going to be obsessing over the supercommittee’s failure for days to come, and since we will be inundated with reams of bogus false equivalence reporting about it, it’s worth stating as clearly as possible what really transpired.

And so: Any news outlet that doesn’t leave readers and viewers with an absolutely clear sense that the primary sticking point was over whether the rich should see their contribution to deficit reduction increase or decrease is letting down its customers.

The problem with this is that we could just as easily frame it this way:

Here’s why the supercommittee is failing, in one sentence: Republicans wanted to accomplish deficit reduction solely through cuts in spending, and Democrats wanted to accomplish deficit reduction through a combination of tax hikes and spending cuts. Neither side would budge, for reasons of ideology and electoral politics.

By and large, that’s how media outlets are reporting the failure to reach a settlement. And, considering that this has been the standoff during the entire budget battle that led to the creation of the supercommittee to begin with, that’s perfectly reasonable.

Now, I happen to think that letting the Bush tax cuts on the top bracket expire probably makes sense. Raising the tax rates on earnings about $379,151 a year by a couple percentage points would still have the rates at near-historic lows and is likely to raise much needed revenue for the treasury with minimum negative effect on the economy. But the notion that cutting rates is always good and raising them is always bad is an orthodoxy with some and the incentive to hew to that line is quite powerful.

It’s not clear that assigning blame here is a worthwhile exercise. There is legitimate disagreement on what public policies should be enacted here–along with a large dollop of political calculation. But that, too, is on both sides. Democratic leaders are trying to force Republicans to renege on their “no tax” pledge precisely because they understand that doing so is political suicide.

Further, as Sargent acknowledges, the Republicans, via the so-called Toomey Plan, offered serious concessions on the revenue side. But they wanted to do so via the closing of loopholes while ending the sunset on the Bush tax cuts. That was, understandably, a non-starter for Democrats for whom highly progressive rates as a touchstone.

Where I do think Republicans deserve the lion’s share of the blame is for getting is in this position to begin with. Specifically, in forcing a showdown over the mythical “debt ceiling” in order to blackmail the Democrats into going along with austerity measures that they don’t want. Sequestration, ostensibly, was President Obama’s trump card, designed to force Republicans to give in on taxes or else gut their beloved Defense Department. But that was always an empty threat, in that the cuts will almost surely never come.

FILED UNDER: Congress, Quick Takes, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Further, as Sargent acknowledges, the Republicans, via the so-called Toomey Plan, offered serious concessions on the revenue side. But they wanted to do so via the closing of loopholes while ending the sunset on the Bush tax cuts.

    You have quite the definition of “serious” there James. Their “serious concessions” would have raised the deficit. By a lot. In my book one does not laugh at “serious proposals” like one would at a Jon Stewart show.

  2. de stijl says:

    But the notion that cutting rates is always good and raising them is always bad is an orthodoxy with some and the incentive to hew to that line is quite powerful.

    Is this some witty, Evelyn Waugh-style understatement-for-effect, or are you not mentioning Grover Norquist and his near total headlock on Republicans for a reason?

  3. sam says:

    To head off the inevitable, from Kevin Drum:

    Every pundit [ or commenter] who laments the fact that President Obama didn’t “do more” to get some kind of budget agreement through the supercommittee should be required to:

    Explain exactly what Obama should have done.
    Explain whether they think Republicans would ever, under any circumstances, have accepted a deal with a net tax increase.
    If yes, provide details.
    If no, explain why their hypothetical deal is any better, or more politically feasible, than the default trigger deal.

    Kevin goes on to say, “I should warn everyone ahead of time, though, that I mainly want answers to these questions so that I can laugh at you.”

  4. Lit3Bolt says:

    It’s not clear that assigning blame here is a worthwhile exercise.

    It never is with Republican non-governance, is it.

    You know what being a “no tax” party is like? It’s like being a total, absolute, full stop pacifist and saying “no war” to any foreign policy problem, including being invaded or being shot in the eye. If the Republicans get hammered in the polls for their ridiculous policies and tax breaks, they fully deserve them for making promises they couldn’t keep.

    The deficit could rise to 15, 20, or 30 trillion before James Joyner blames Republicans or Grover Norquist explicitly for their idiotic tax policies which has lead us directly to large deficits. Instead it’s an “orthodoxy” that “some” “hew” to. Try every single member the Republican party, in monolithic lockstep, with quite a few empty suit/soul Democrats joining them who see Congress as their own insider trading gravy train.

    So no blame to assign, instead it’s more chirpy analysis with wiggle words like “probably” and “perhaps” and “maybe” until you drown in passive voice. Nothing is evidence based in political science but there’s large dollops of political calculation! There’s the bad politicians acting in bad faith and the pocket lining politicians who occasionally govern, but in the end both sides do it and who can really know anything truly in this world and I have no idea how this will turn out but it’s very interesting!! Chirp chirp!

  5. mantis says:

    the Republicans, via the so-called Toomey Plan, offered serious concessions on the revenue side

    I’ve got a bridge to sell you, Mr. Joyner, when you’re available.

  6. Mikey says:

    Who benefits from the failure of the “supercommittee?” Answer that question and you know where to put the blame.

  7. James Joyner says:

    @sam: Republicans oppose raising taxes, so demanding tax cuts is unlikely to be the route to compromise. Instead, it’d have to come from closing loopholes and cutting spending on programs popular with Republicans.

  8. James says:

    @James Joyner:

    Republicans wanted to accomplish deficit reduction solely through cuts in spending,

    James,

    First, cutting the deficient through spending cuts only – if only from a policy perspective – is insane. Moreso when we’re trying to recover from a massive economic crisis and a stubbornly high unemployment rate.

    and Democrats wanted to accomplish deficit reduction through a combination of tax hikes and spending cuts. Neither side would budge, for reasons of ideology and electoral politics.

    Second, Democrats have budged, repeatedly! Your continual denial of this basic fact causes me to question your ability to be an intellectual honest commentator.

  9. James Joyner says:

    @James: Democrats have come up with more proposals and have been more flexible on how to achieve a deal, yes. But they’ve been steadfast that any deal must include tax hikes, which amount to a poison pill.

  10. ChrisB says:

    @James Joyner: So it’s the Democrat’s fault for the failure of the supercommittee, because they expect the Republicans to compromise? That doesn’t sound like a fair assignment of blame.

  11. James says:

    @James Joyner:

    But they’ve been steadfast that any deal must include tax hikes

    Because a deal has to include tax hikes! That’s why it’s a deal and not “conservative policy wishlist.” Democrats were elected to represent the views of people (like myself) who believe that balancing the budget through (non-defense) spending cuts alone is bad policy, unfair and only serves to further entrench our economic problems.

  12. mantis says:

    Democrats have come up with more proposals and have been more flexible on how to achieve a deal, yes. But they’ve been steadfast that any deal must include tax hikes, which amount to a poison pill.

    James’s idea of negotiation is one side gives up everything, while the other gives up nothing. Sorry, that’s the entire Republican Party’s idea of negotiation. Mostly because their primary aim is to destroy the US economy and blame Obama.

    It’s easy to see if you open your eyes.

  13. James Joyner says:

    @James: @mantis: Asking the other side to give up the main thing they care about is likely to be an ineffective negotiating strategy. Since George H.W. Bush gave in to Democrats and broke his “Read my lips, no new taxes!” pledge, this has been a touchstone issue for Republicans: “Never Again!”

    I think it’s time to back off of tax fetishism. Republicans have won the core argument and we’re now niggling at the margins. But I understand why they’re not backing off from a position of perceived strength.

  14. James says:

    @James Joyner:

    Asking the other side to give up the main thing they care about is likely to be an ineffective negotiating strategy.

    James,

    This is absurd. Can we expect Republicans to stop asking to privatize Social Security and block grant Medicaid?

    This isn’t about negotiating strategies or winning the day’s news cycle. It’s about crafting sound policy that compromises a variety of competing demands from various constituencies that are represented by elected officials. You’re basically arguing that that one side (your side) shouldn’t have to comprise a single dollar in tax revenue, where as the other (my side) should give up any and every social safety-net program in the name of fiscal health.

    Barack Obama offered to increase the Medicare edibility age; both bad policy and a liberal sacred cow, in hopes of reaching a reasonable compromise with House Republicans. So, I don’t care that George H. W. Bush got hammered for putting good policy ahead of good politics. He was being (gasp) “presidential”, unlike his son.

  15. mantis says:

    Something tells me James would not be defending the Democrats if their negotiating position was “No cutting any spending, ever!”

    This would be exactly the same as the Republicans’ absolutism over taxes, and James would never, ever defend such a stance as he is now doing for Republicans. He would never say that he “understands why they’re not backing off.” He would call them crazy and unreasonable. But hey, IOKIYAR.

    It is a blatant rejection of the reality that the government has to spend money, and to get that money it must tax. There are two sides to the equation, and both parties agree that those should be balanced and the debt is getting out of hand. However, one party insists that one side of the equation is off limits, where the other party recognizes they must both be adjusted.

    As we have already learned, the Republicans are more than willing to take the US economy hostage, making unreasonable, absolutist, unrealistic demands while offering nothing. James thinks this is reasonable. This is the reason the Republican Party may just take the whole ship down before reasonable people like James wise up.

  16. James Joyner says:

    @mantis: I don’t think the two are equivalent positions, even though I hold neither of them.

    I think the Grover Norquist fetishization of no taxes, period is a huge problem. But I understand why they’re there. Republicans are understandably skittish of tax hikes after the Bush 41 debacle. They saw that compromising with the Democrats not only didn’t win them any points in the middle but cost them hugely with the base.

    And I was pretty scathing during the showdown over the debt ceiling. I think that was an unforced error that could have been calamitous.

  17. anjin-san says:

    They saw that compromising with the Democrats not only didn’t win them any points in the middle but cost them hugely with the base.

    Of course, it was good for the country, but that does not factor into GOP thinking in the 21st century.

  18. mantis says:

    I think the Grover Norquist fetishization of no taxes, period is a huge problem. But I understand why they’re there. Republicans are understandably skittish of tax hikes after the Bush 41 debacle. They saw that compromising with the Democrats not only didn’t win them any points in the middle but cost them hugely with the base.

    Only because they make stupid absolutist pledges and tie their own hands, being the reasonable negotiators we are told they are.

  19. James says:

    @James Joyner: I see your point. But Republicans don’t insist on no tax increases because of Grover Norquist. Republican officials, maybe; but Republican thinkers, economists and most importantly voters insist on no tax increases at all, ever, for any reason because they’re sold on dumb, vodoo economics that has little emperical basis in the profession. Elected Republican officals just play along with the carade because it keeps them employed.

  20. Kit says:

    I’ll agree that both sides are equally to blame once the Republicans offer to have some of their sacred cows slaughtered in the name of actually making a compromise. Poison pill or not, the Democrats continue time and time again to put serious concessions on the table in terms of cutting costs in the major social programs, and in exchange want some tax increases to, you know, actually pay for what we’re getting. Their basic position is a relatively simple one – Republicans have to share in the pain of compromise, too.

    This is directly driven by the problem that a not insignificant portion of the GOP base comes unhinged at any idea of compromise with liberals and/or Democrats. How many proposals did we see during the debt deal that got torpedoed simply because Obama was asked if he could support it and said, “Yeah, if they could get that to my desk I’d probably be willing to sign it.” The next day, maybe two Congressmen/Senators from the GOP are still supporting the compromise.

    Governance is about compromise – you may not always like what has to be done, but it needs to get done. That’s one of the things that the backroom deals of yore used to help achieve – without all of the microphones and TV cameras and twitter updates reporting the latest talks and points of compromise, you don’t get an intransigent base calling up everyone who disagree’s with Rush Limbaugh’s stance of no compromise with liberals and screaming at their staffers until they want to curl up in a ball under their desk.

  21. Just nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @James Joyner: It would appear that your position is that the GOP perception that taxes will never be low enough is the prevailing view among the populace. If that is so, good luck on ever bringing the deficit under control.

    Oh, and by the way, it may be time to start selling government paper short in a few years.