POLITICS
03/22/2011 05:12 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

In Deficit Debate, Legislators Continue To Find New, Innovative Ways To Pass The Buck

In case you missed it, the latest development in the ongoing Beltway battle over the federal deficit came yesterday, in the form of a strongly-worded missive from a "Gang of 64" to President Barack Obama, informing him that they were all out of ideas on how to proceed, and that this was his fault.

In a letter sent Friday to the White House, the 64 senators urge Obama "to support a broad approach to solving our current budget problems" along the lines of recommendations issued last year by a presidentially appointed commission. That plan calls for sharp cuts in government spending, elimination or reduction of dozens of popular tax breaks and an overhaul of Social Security that would include raising the retirement age to 69 for today's toddlers.

Chances are, it wouldn't take me too long to go through the signatories and identify individuals who, back when Obama was taking a more heavy-handed approach to pressing his agenda in Congress, complained that various bills were being "shoved down their throats." That was then, however, and this is now: 64 senators with mouths agape, looking to get stuffed.

It wasn't too long before Matt Yglesias made the obvious observation:

The first thing that's ridiculous about this, is that if 64 Senators want to vote for the Simpson-Bowles Commission's recommendations, then there's nothing stopping them from voting for the Simpson-Bowles Commission's recommendations. They don't need support from Barack Obama to do so. If anything, Barack Obama endorsing Simpson-Bowles would make it more difficult for Republicans to endorse it.

Indeed, why is the "Gang of 64" sending out letters instead of drafting a piece of legislation and signing up cosponsors? That would be, to my mind, a much greater example of "a powerful sign of bipartisan willingness to abandon long-held positions on entitlement spending and taxes," which is what the Washington Post calls the letter itself.

But that's what the deficit debate has been -- a long exercise in passing off activity as achievement. It was that way from the beginning, when a group of senators first floated the idea that there should be a blue ribbon-style deficit commission, empaneled by legislation, that would allow a group of legislators to meet and discuss and kick around ideas safe in the knowledge that no matter what happened, self-imposed high hurdles in the form of three levels of supermajority necessity would prevent any of their ideas from becoming law. But they could all tell their constituents that they took the matter super-seriously!

Here's how awesomely stupid the deficit commission, as conceived by Sens. Judd Gregg (R-N.H., now retired) and Kent Conrad (D-N.D., retiring), was: one of the things that the commission intended to do was "do a lot of public outreach and would also have an advisory group that would have all the different folks with alleged vested interests in these questions, especially in the entitlement side and on the tax policy side." In other words, they were going to spend money on a public P.R. campaign and on outreach to lobbyists. This meant that my first suggestion on how to save taxpayers a little money was: "How about you don't actually do these pointless things?"

Eventually, the Republican co-chairs of the deficit commission bailed on their own proposal. Instead, it was birthed into existence by the White House instead in the form of the Simpson-Bowles Commission, which retained the dysfunctional supermajority requirements of its predecessor. To the surprise of nobody, that commission failed to pass a plan, though the "Chairman's Mark" that was released is often confused by the addled media as "the Simpson-Bowles plan." The major accomplishment of the Simpson-Bowles commission has been that people who voted against the commission's proposals, like House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), get to yell about how President Obama also didn't support the commission's proposals, without much fear that a reporter will notice the irony.

So, really, the Simpson-Bowles commission, designed to shield legislators from the responsibility of proposing their own plan to reduce the deficit while simultaneously empowering them to get self-righteous about the need to get serious about deficit reduction, worked stupendously.

Meanwhile, voters continue to not care about deficits that aren't the household deficits they're running up because of the massive unemployment crisis in America. And to the extent that they care about solving the federal deficit problem, they mostly want to soak the rich. Legislators should maybe get on that! Instead, they're sending letters that read, "Help! We've tried nothing and now we're all out of ideas."

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