But when it came time this week for the president to talk about his deficit-reduction proposal, three words were notably absent from the pitch. He never said “Pass this bill.” In part, that’s because he’s not offering a bill; he’s submitting a proposal to Congress’ Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction. But it’s also because there is no chance that a bill resembling Obama’s proposal will pass.
Republicans would sooner adopt a resolution honoring Karl Marx and Eugene Debs for their commitment to the working man. Obama knows that, the Republicans know that Obama knows that, and most of us know it, too. In a conference call with reporters on Sunday night, a senior administration official didn’t even attempt to pretend otherwise: “It’s his vision and not a legislative compromise being crafted to garner some number of votes in the House and the Senate,” he said.
So what legislation will the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, known as the “supercommittee,” produce? As with anything that requires congressional action, the smart bet is on nothing. In this case, however, “nothing” isn’t really nothing. Because if nothing passes the supercommittee, then an automatic sequestration process -- better known as “the trigger” -- begins. The real goal of the supercommittee is to offer a proposal that both Democrats and Republicans prefer to the trigger. And that may be harder than many people realize.
The trigger itself is a product of political compromise. Devised in the final days of the debt-ceiling debacle and rushed into law on the eve of the government’s near-default, it was a response to the political question that had thwarted every previous effort to resolve the crisis: How could Congress craft a debt deal when Republicans won’t agree to new taxes and Democrats won’t agree to significant spending cuts without new taxes?
The answer was an automatic trigger that begins in 2013 and distributes its cuts in an almost comically progressive fashion. The final compromise would slash $1.2 trillion from federal programs over 10 years -- though because interest savings were included in the total, it’s really a cut of $980 billion or so. Of every $2 in cuts, $1 would come from the Pentagon. In addition, Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare beneficiaries, and nearly all programs benefiting low-income Americans, would be exempt from cuts.
An across-the-board sequester is the crude work of a hatchet, not a scalpel, but a lot of Democrats would prefer crudely implemented, broad cuts that target defense and exempt the social safety net to narrow cuts to social programs that are handled delicately. The White House is perhaps more concerned about the trigger than many in the Democratic base because the defense cuts are not at all abstract to them. But they will find it very hard to sell congressional Democrats on a compromise struck in order to protect the Pentagon.
That formula leaves Republicans with two options for securing a deal with the Democrats: either cut $1.5 trillion in spending in a way both parties prefer, or agree to raise taxes. Does either course seem likely to you?
Of course, policy considerations aren’t the only factors in play. There is also politics. Democrats would like to strike a deal with Republicans (and the administration in particular very much wanted a grand bargain). They worry about looking weak on defense if too much is cut, or weak on deficits if the public concludes the overall reductions don’t go far enough. A month or two ago -- about the time the debt deal was struck -- those concerns seemed likely to dominate Democratic thinking.
But Democrats have become increasingly disillusioned with the politics of begging the Republicans for a deal. That’s been the Democratic strategy since the election, and all it’s gotten them is an angry base, a string of losses in special elections and the contempt of a nation that prefers strong leaders to ineffectual compromisers. The president’s recent speeches have reflected his party’s more confrontational approach, including Obama’s promise to veto any supercommittee legislation that cuts Medicare benefits without raising taxes on the wealthy. The closer we get to the election, and the higher the stakes become in the news media, the harder it will be for either party to back down.
There is, however, another lure the Republicans might dangle before Democrats without surrendering their no-new-taxes pledges: spending on jobs. The supercommittee could easily decide that deficit reduction requires job growth (because it does), and thus propose policies like infrastructure investment and an expanded payroll-tax cut. Democrats would give up a lot of future spending to get more government support right now for an ailing economy. There’s even a precedent for this: It’s exactly how the Republicans and Democrats resolved the standoff over the expiration of the Bush tax cuts in 2010, with Democrats continuing the tax cuts in return for Republican support for extended jobless benefits and other policies.
The devil of any compromise is, of course, in the details. At this point, it would be very difficult for the White House to back a Republican-favored deficit bill even in return for passage of part of Obama’s jobs package. But it would be even harder for them to back a Republican-friendly deficit bill in return for the simple satisfaction of having made Washington “work.” Liberals are very unlikely to find that more attractive than the trigger.
So if Republicans don’t want to accept substantial new taxes (and they don’t), and if they don’t want to facilitate huge cuts to the Pentagon (and they don’t), it might be time for them to start thinking about what sort of jobs program they could live with. After all, “Pass this bill!” makes for a much more stirring applause line than “Pull that trigger!”
(Ezra Klein is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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