WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama and leaders of the lame-duck Congress may be just weeks away from shaking hands on a deal to avert the dreaded "fiscal cliff." So it's natural to wonder: If they announce a bipartisan package promising to curb mushrooming federal deficits, will it be real?
Both sides have struck cooperative tones since Obama's re-election. Even so, he and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, the GOP's pivotal bargainer, have spent most of the past two years in an acrid political climate in which both sides have fought stubbornly to protect their constituencies.
Obama and top lawmakers could produce an agreement that takes a serious bite out of the government's growing $16 trillion pile of debt and puts it on a true downward trajectory.
Or they might reach an accord heading off massive tax increases and spending cuts that begin to bite in January – that's the fiscal cliff – while appearing to be getting tough on deficits through painful savings deferred until years from now, when their successors might revoke or dilute them.
Historically, Congress and presidents have proven themselves capable of either. So before bargainers concoct a product, and assuming they can, here's a checklist of how to assess their work:
OVERALL DEFICIT CUTS
The House and Senate have four weeks until Christmas. Their leaders and the president want a deal before then. Bargainers are shooting for a framework setting future debt-reduction targets, with detailed tax and spending changes to be approved next year but possibly some initial savings enacted immediately.
Obama has suggested 10-year savings totaling around $4.4 trillion.
Passing a framework next month that sets deficit-cutting targets for each of the next 10 years would be seen as a sign of seriousness. But look for specifics. An agreement will have a greater chance of actually reducing deficits if it details how the savings would be divided between revenue increases and cuts in federal programs, averting future fights among lawmakers over that question.
Better yet would be including a fast-track process for passing next year's tax and spending bills if they meet the savings targets so they can whisk through Congress without the possibility of a Senate filibuster, in which 41 of the 100 senators could kill a measure they dislike.
Another sign of sincerity: An enforcement mechanism that imposes savings automatically if lawmakers gridlock over details. Legislators' efforts now to avert January's combination of automatic tax boosts and spending cuts underscores the effectiveness of forcing them to act.
Less impressive would be verbal pledges by the White House and congressional leaders to meet deficit-cutting goals without passing legislation inscribing the figures into law.
A deal that specifies where revenue would come from would lay important groundwork for next year's follow-up bill enacting actual changes in tax laws.
The biggest clash has been over whether to raise income tax rates on earnings over $200,000 annually for individuals, $250,000 for families. Obama wants to let them rise next year to a top rate of 39.6 percent but has suggested he would compromise. Boehner and other Republicans oppose any increase above today's top marginal rate of 35 percent. Instead, they advocate lower rates and eliminating or reducing unspecified deductions and tax credits. Settling that would resolve the toughest impediment to a deal.
Raising money from higher rates, closing loopholes or a combination of the two would create real revenue for the government. The problem is many tax deductions and credits , such as for home mortgages and the value of employer-provided health insurance, are so popular that enacting them into law over objections from the public and lobbyists would be extremely difficult.
With the price tags of tax and spending laws typically measured over a decade, delaying the implementation date can distort the projected impact of a change on people and the government's debt.
Tax cuts written to expire in a certain year can put future lawmakers under political pressure to extend it. That is what Obama and Congress face today with the January expiration of tax cuts, including many enacted a decade ago under President George W. Bush.
Even more questionable are assumptions that overhauling tax laws will boost economic activity and thus produce large new revenues for the government. Many Republicans and ideologically conservative economists contend that's the case, but most economists say there is no sound way to estimate how much revenue can be generated from strengthening the economy by revamping the tax system. Many believe the amount is modest.
A serious agreement should specify how much savings would come from entitlements, meaning those big, costly benefit programs such as Social Security and Medicare. It also should say how much would come from discretionary spending, which covers federal agency budgets for everything from the military and national parks to food safety inspections and weather forecasts.
Why the need for specificity?
Because spending for entitlements occurs automatically, accounts for nearly two-thirds of federal spending and is the fastest growing part of the budget. Discretionary spending has been shackled by past budget deals and, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, is moving toward falling below 6 percent the size of the economy by 2022, the lowest level in at least 50 years.
A sincere effort to control expenditures would focus on entitlements, the true source of the government's spending problem. An agreement that envisions deep discretionary cuts risks a reliance on savings that future lawmakers could find unbearable and rescind.
Savings that come from weeding out waste, fraud and abuse, which sounds good but are difficult to find, or rely on one-time sales of federal assets should be treated with suspicion.
Deep cuts that take effect in the future, say after Obama leaves office in 2017, might be better than imposing them now and hurting an already weak economy by reducing spending.
But delayed cuts also open the door for Obama's successors and future Congresses to roll them back. In 1997, Congress voted for cuts in Medicare reimbursements to doctors; those cuts have grown so large that lawmakers now vote annually to restore the money.
Postponing the implementation of spending increases already scheduled to take effect, such as federal health insurance subsidies under Obama's health care overhaul, saves money upfront but makes no permanent changes that would ease future spending pressures.
Another debatable source of deficit reduction would be the hundreds of billions of dollars the Obama administration says the government is saving by winding down wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. While there is no question those expenditures are dropping, the government has run huge deficits while those wars were waged, so there's no money being left unspent as those wars end.
Also on HuffPost:
Military Health Care - $16 Billion
In his last offer to House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), President Barack Obama lobbied for $16 billion in cuts from the military's health care program, TRICARE. In 2012, the president also proposed hiking fees for military personnel and veterans who receive benefits under the program in an effort to help cut the defense budget. His proposal drew significant fire from Republican lawmakers and veterans' groups.
Military Retirement Program - $11 Billion
Both sides agreed to cuts from the military retirement program. Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) claimed during July 2011 talks that lawmakers had reached a tentative deal to slash <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/11/fiscal-cliff-talks-medicare-social-security_n_2113259.html" target="_hplink">$11 billion</a>. Under the current system, military personnel receive immediate retirement benefits after serving for 20 years. According to a recent report from the Congressional Budget Office, the appropriation cost per active military service member has <a href="http://www.cbo.gov/publication/43574" target="_hplink">increased at a higher rate</a> than either inflation or the total pay package of private-sector employees. Given the budget constraints looming before the Defense Department, the CBO floated the idea of transitioning the military retirement program to a matching-payment model.
Federal Employee Retirement Program - $33 -$36 Billion
Cantor claimed that Republicans and Democrats had agreed to <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/11/fiscal-cliff-talks-medicare-social-security_n_2113259.html" target="_hplink">$36 billion in savings</a> over 10 years from civilian retirement programs. The president proposed a marginally more modest figure of <a href="http://presspass.nbcnews.com/_news/2012/11/11/15089281-white-house-grand-bargain-offer-to-speaker-boehner-obtained-by-bob-woodward#.UKCJftkTtS8.twitter" target="_hplink">$33 billion</a> in his final offer to House Speaker John Boehner. Just this year, Republicans in the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform also looked to find savings from the Federal Employee Retirement System by <a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/federal-eye/post/house-committee-approves-measure-upping-federal-employee-contributions-to-retirement-plan/2012/04/26/gIQAuoW6iT_blog.html" target="_hplink">requiring employees to pay more of their salary</a> into their pensions, which Democrats opposed as a pay cut that would make civil service less attractive for top talent. In September 2011, the federal government employed <a href="http://www.fedscope.opm.gov/cognos/cgi-bin/ppdscgi.exe?DC=Q&E=/FSe%20-%20Status/Employment%20-%20September%202012&LA=en&LO=en-us&BACK=/cognos/cgi-bin/ppdscgi.exe?toc=%2FFSe%20-%20Status&LA=en&LO=en-us" target="_hplink">over two million individuals</a>, either through the cabinets or independent agencies. Many Republicans have complained that the federal workforce has ballooned during the Obama administration, and while the raw number of employees has risen by <a href="http://www.thefactfile.com/2012/01/23/the-size-of-the-federal-workforce-rapid-growth-for-some-stagnation-for-others/" target="_hplink">14.4 percent</a> between Sept. 2007 and Sept. 2011, the percentage of public employees out of the total civilian workforce has <a href="http://www.thefactfile.com/2012/01/23/the-size-of-the-federal-workforce-rapid-growth-for-some-stagnation-for-others/" target="_hplink">remained fairly constant</a> around 1.2 percent since 2001. Much of the raw growth has been concentrated in the Department of Defense, Veteran's Affairs and Homeland Security.
Agricultural Subsidies - $30 - $33 Billion
Democrats and Republicans agreed to cut as much as <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/12/fiscal-cliff-barack-obama-_n_2118739.html" target="_hplink">$30 billion</a> from agricultural subsidies; the main opposition fell along geographical lines rather than partisan ones. Hailing from an agriculture-heavy state, Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) threatened to pull out of talks entirely if a deal included that much in subsidy reduction. The president ended up pushing for <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/11/fiscal-cliff-talks-medicare-social-security_n_2113259.html" target="_hplink">$33 billion in cuts</a>, but that figure also included reductions in conservation programs. Baucus now tells HuffPost any cuts should be made through the farm bill, not fiscal cliff talks.
Food Stamps - $2 to $20 Billion
Cantor pushed hard for significant cuts to food stamps, formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. He charged that the federal government could save as much as <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/11/fiscal-cliff-talks-medicare-social-security_n_2113259.html" target="_hplink">$20 billion over ten years</a> by eliminating waste and fraud, but the White House countered that the real number was closer to $2 billion. Instead, those cuts would force the program to scale back on the number of enrollees and the level of benefits it could offer.
Flood Assistance - $4 Billion
Obama proposed cutting <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/12/fiscal-cliff-barack-obama-_n_2118739.html" target="_hplink">$4 billion from flood assistance</a> funding in his final offer to Boehner in July 2011. But Hurricane Sandy straining the National Flood Insurance Program; The New York Times <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/13/nyregion/federal-flood-insurance-program-faces-new-stress.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0" target="_hplink">reports</a> that thousands of claims are being submitted daily, which could send the overall cost upwards of $7 billion for a program that suffers from a ballooning debt problem. And with climate change promising <a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/capital-weather-gang/post/climate-change-predictions-foresaw-hurricane-sandy-scenario-for-new-york-city/2012/10/31/b78de428-2374-11e2-ac85-e669876c6a24_blog.html" target="_hplink">future flooding disasters</a> along the eastern seaboard, cutting the program looks unwise.
Home Health Care - $50 Billion
The president offered to cut <a href="http://presspass.nbcnews.com/_news/2012/11/11/15089281-white-house-grand-bargain-offer-to-speaker-boehner-obtained-by-bob-woodward#.UKCJftkTtS8.twitter" target="_hplink">$110 billion over the next decade</a> from the government's health care spending, excluding Medicare. Among the programs that could lose crucial funding is home health care, where Democrats and Republicans agreed to <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/11/fiscal-cliff-talks-medicare-social-security_n_2113259.html" target="_hplink">$50 billion in reductions</a> over ten years. Cantor pushed for closer to $300 billion in spending cuts to health care, but Democrats appeared to stand firm.
Higher Education - $10 Billion
The president proposed cutting <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/12/fiscal-cliff-barack-obama-_n_2118739.html" target="_hplink">$10 billion from higher education</a> over the next decade, mostly from Pell grants. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/27/pell-grants-college-costs_n_1835081.html" target="_hplink">Over nine million students</a> relied on federal subsidized loans to afford college during the 2010-2011 school year, and the skyrocketing costs have continued to diminish the purchasing power of the Pell grant program. Obama has actively worked to make college more affordable for lower-income students. Key Republican lawmakers have attempted to cut funding for student loans; most notably, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) slashed the maximum award from $5,550 per student per year down to <a href="http://colorlines.com/archives/2011/07/dems_students_fight_to_save_pell_grants_amidst_debt_ceiling_talks.html" target="_hplink">just $3,040</a>.
Medicaid And Other Health- $110 Billion
The original funding levels proposed by Cantor and the GOP leadership would turn the entitlement program for America's poor into little more than a block grant program, Democrats claimed during the 2011 debt ceiling talks. Under such a program, they argued that states would then <a href="http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-09-11/medicaid-to-lose-1-26-trillion-under-romney-block-grant.html" target="_hplink">drop more people from enrollment</a> and scale back on health benefits. In fiscal year 2009, <a href="http://www.census.gov/compendia/statab/2012/tables/12s0151.pdf" target="_hplink">over 62 million Americans</a> -- many of them children -- depended on Medicaid for their health care. But the president did agree to <a href="http://presspass.nbcnews.com/_news/2012/11/11/15089281-white-house-grand-bargain-offer-to-speaker-boehner-obtained-by-bob-woodward#.UKCJftkTtS8.twitter" target="_hplink">$110 billion</a> in cuts from Medicaid and other health programs.
Medicare - $250 Billion +
Republicans pushed for a drastic overhaul to the entitlement program for America's seniors. Ryan infamously proposed turning Medicare into little more than a voucher system in which seniors would receive checks to purchase their own health care on the open market -- a plan that would ultimately <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kennethdavis/medicare-vouchers_b_1947804.html" target="_hplink">force individuals to shoulder more of the burden</a> for their health care costs. Democrats refused to accept changes similar to those in Ryan's plan. The president, however, was <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/11/fiscal-cliff-talks-medicare-social-security_n_2113259.html" target="_hplink">more open to other GOP suggestions</a> on Medicare. In his final offer to Boehner, he agreed cut $250 billion over the next ten years -- in part by increasing premiums for higher-income seniors and by raising the eligibility age from 65 to 67 (although over a longer time frame).
Tax Reform - $800 Billion - $1.6 Trillion
Republicans have again and again <a href="http://www.politico.com/blogs/politicolive/0511/Boehner_Medicare_Medicaid__everything_should_be_on_the_table_except_raising_taxes.html" target="_hplink">decried any attempt</a> to raise taxes, either on the highest earners or on corporations. (A Democracy Corps/Campaign for America's Future survey shows that <a href="http://www.ourfuture.org/report/2012114508/cafdemocracy-corps-election-poll-2012" target="_hplink">70 percent of voters</a> support raising taxes on the wealthiest two percent of Americans.) Instead, Boehner has pushed for a <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/11/fiscal-cliff-talks-medicare-social-security_n_2113259.html" target="_hplink">comprehensive tax reform bill</a> that would lower the marginal tax rates while closing loopholes and eliminating deductions in order to raise around $800 billion in additional revenues. For many Democrats, <a href="http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887323551004578117152861144968.html" target="_hplink">that figure simply isn't enough</a>. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney announced Tuesday that the president was aiming for as much as <a href="http://takingnote.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/11/13/showing-backbone-on-the-debt/" target="_hplink">$1.6 trillion in new revenues</a>, and the president told reporters on Wednesday that it would be <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/14/obama-tax-cuts_n_2131256.html" target="_hplink">practically impossible</a> to raise the amount of revenue he wanted simply from closing loopholes and lowering rates.
Social Security - $112 Billion
Social Security <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/14/fiscal-cliff-social-security_n_2130762.html?utm_hp_ref=mostpopular" target="_hplink">isn't driving the deficit</a>, yet Republicans have <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/11/fiscal-cliff-talks-medicare-social-security_n_2113259.html" target="_hplink">pursued drastic changes</a> to the program. Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has promised that Social Security would be <a href="http://livewire.talkingpointsmemo.com/entry/reid-no-messing-with-social-security" target="_hplink">off the table</a> in the on-going negotiations to avoid the fiscal cliff, but Obama did concede to tying the benefits to a <a href="http://presspass.nbcnews.com/_news/2012/11/11/15089281-white-house-grand-bargain-offer-to-speaker-boehner-obtained-by-bob-woodward#.UKCJftkTtS8.twitter" target="_hplink">recalculated Consumer Price Index</a> that would ultimately provide less money to retirees. Sen. Bernie Sanders claims that, under such a measure, seniors who are currently 65 years-old would see their benefits drop by <a href="http://thehill.com/homenews/senate/267079-reid-assures-sanders-he-wont-agree-to-social-security-cuts-in-debt-deal" target="_hplink">$560 a month in 10 years</a> and by as much as <a href="http://thehill.com/homenews/senate/267079-reid-assures-sanders-he-wont-agree-to-social-security-cuts-in-debt-deal" target="_hplink">$1,000 in 20 years</a>. The Moment of Truth project (led by the two former co-chairs of the president's deficit reduction commission, former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) and former White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles) claims that the recalculated CPI could save as much as <a href="http://www.inthesetimes.com/article/11767/the_social_security_cut_washington_does_not_want_you_to_understand/" target="_hplink">$112 billion</a> from Social Security over the next ten years.
Tax Loopholes And Deductions - Up To $180 Billion
Although Cantor and other GOP House members demanded that any deficit-reduction deal brokered in 2011 be classified as <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/11/fiscal-cliff-talks-medicare-social-security_n_2113259.html" target="_hplink">revenue-neutral</a>, they were open to closing particular loopholes in the corporate tax code and limiting itemized deductions for individuals -- given that they were offset by other tax cuts. Out of the $50 billion in savings to be found over the next decade from closing loopholes, Cantor proposed getting $3 billion from eliminating the break for corporate-jet owners and another $20 billion from voiding the subsidies for the oil and gas industries. On the individual earner side, he proposed eliminating the second-home mortgage deduction for $20 billion, as well as limiting the mortgage deduction for higher-income households to rake in another $20 billion. He also offered to tighten the tax treatment of retirement accounts. But Democrats wanted to see even greater action taken on itemized deductions. In June 2011, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) proposed raising $130 billion in new revenues by capping itemized deductions at 35 percent for the highest income brackets. The GOP response to his proposal at the time was a resounding "no."
Bush Tax Cuts For The Wealthy - $950 Billion
Set to expire on Dec. 31, 2012, the Bush tax cuts represent one of the most controversial elements of the so-called fiscal cliff. They added over <a href="http://graphics8.nytimes.com/images/2011/07/24/opinion/sunday/24editorial_graph2/24editorial_graph2-popup.gif" target="_hplink">$1.8 trillion to the deficit</a> between 2002 and 2009. Yet Republicans argue that an extension is necessary to create jobs and spur economic growth. But a <a href="http://tpmdc.talkingpointsmemo.com/PDF/0915taxesandeconomy.pdf" target="_hplink">study</a> from the Congressional Research Service found that tax cuts for the wealthiest earners had little economic effect. The White House is pushing for a renewal only of those tax breaks for the lower- and middle-class Americans in order to save the average middle-class family <a href="http://money.cnn.com/2012/10/01/pf/taxes/fiscal-cliff-tax/index.html" target="_hplink">between $2,000 and $3,500</a> next year. Letting the cuts expire for those earning over $250,000 a year -- or the wealthiest two percent of Americans -- would haul in <a href="http://www.offthechartsblog.org/cbo-ending-high-income-tax-cuts-would-save-almost-1-trillion/" target="_hplink">$950 billion</a> in savings over the next decade, according to the CBO. Obama stressed how much the country stood to gain from such an approach Wednesday during a press conference. "If we right away say 98 percent of Americans are not going to see their taxes go up — 97 percent of small businesses are not going to see their taxes go up," he said. "If we get that in place, we're actually <a href="http://www.cnbc.com/id/49821777" target="_hplink">removing half of the fiscal cliff</a>."