02/20/2013 07:16 pm ET Updated Feb 20, 2013

WaPo Editors Show Sequester Fight Favoritism, Then Bend Over Backwards To Deny It

The editors of the Washington Post have done their latest weighing in on the battle over the sequester, and, as Jonathan Chait writes on Wednesday, they are still doing that thing that the Beltway media do when they've spent too long inhaling their own flatulence -- pointedly preferring one side's policies (in this case, President Barack Obama and the Democrats), pointedly decrying the other side's intransigence (in this case, GOP lawmakers), and then declaring that both sides are equally at fault for the impasse. "Yet neither party has staked out anything like a serious negotiating position," write the editors. "Both sides are obviously playing a political blame game," they add, seemingly without recognizing that their whole editorial is an attempt to win this "game."

It's all basically nonsensical. Matt Yglesias likens it to a sort of vapor-lock that afflicts the intellect when you decide that constantly re-reciting tropes about "seriousness" becomes easier than producing actual thoughts:

Once you embrace the Principle of Seriousness, the way is clear for rigorous BipartisanThink. If the parties fail to agree because one party is being unreasonable and the other party is failing to cater to their unreasonable demands, then the apparently reasonable party is in fact failing to be serious. After all, a serious proposal is one that stands a chance of passing. Reasonable proposals will not pass a Congress in which one party is being unreasonable, so by definition the Principle of Seriousness allocates the blame equally to both sides. Balance is restored to the Force.

This is nothing that we haven't encountered before, but the new wrinkle for me is that I can't actually figure out why the editors have so many problems with the "negotiating position" of the Senate Democrats. In fact, I'm pretty well convinced that they do not actually have any idea what the Senate Democrats actually plan.

Here's how the Post's editors describe the Democrats' "negotiating position":

The Senate Democratic majority has suggested eliminating the sequester by, among other things, cutting farm subsidies, closing certain high-profile tax loopholes and imposing a 30 percent minimum tax on individual income above $1 million per year. This is one big non-starter: Members of both parties want farm subsidies and loophole-closing to pay for other planned reforms, and the millionaire’s tax, though base-pleasing for Democrats, amounts to restoring the just-repealed alternative minimum tax.

First off, it seems like the editors aren't aware of a significant part of the Senate Democrats' plan -- $27.5 billion in defense cuts, "phased in responsibly to time with the troop drawdown in Afghanistan in 2015, and continuing through 2021." As this part of the plan sort of places the cart before the horse (assuming that this troop drawdown will either happen at all, or be as ripe an opportunity for savings as the Senate Democrats hope is not an assumption I would make), it's curious that the editors do not mention it at all, let alone target it for obvious quibbling. (Chait also notes that the editors omit any mention of the obvious stumbling block to any deal -- "the GOP promise to oppose any increase in revenue." It is the one completely unobscured position the GOP has taken, so one would think it would be worth a mention.)

Secondly, what are these "high-profile tax loopholes" of which the Post's editors speak? I am looking at the fact sheet for Senate Democrats' "The American Family Economic Protection Act," which would "replace the first year of sequestration." As best as I can tell, here are your "high-profile tax loopholes:"

The proposal also eliminates a tax break that encourages companies to ship jobs overseas by denying tax deductions for costs associated with outsourcing, reducing the deficit by $200 million. And it eliminates a special tax loophole now enjoyed by the oil industry by including oil from tar sands among the petroleum products that are subject to taxes that support the oil spill liability trust fund, which would reduce the deficit by $1.7 billion.

Neither of these tax loopholes are "high profile." The tar sands loophole isn't actually a loophole in the conventional sense -- producers of oil from tar sands didn't ask for a carve-out in the tax code that can now be "closed." The tax was simply never levied in the first place. Up to this point, they've not been taxed for the purposes of funding an oil spill liability trust fund that is tapped, from time to time, to pay for oil spill cleanup. Tar sands oil producers have long had access to this fund, but have never had to pay into the kitty. The Senate Democrats' plan changes this, but it's not a "loophole closure," it's just a smart, targeted, and entirely fair revenue-raiser.

The one actual loophole that the editors mention raises a relative pittance: $200 million. So I do not think they actually know what they are talking about.

Beyond that, it's odd to hear the editors just shrug and declare the rest of this plan a non-starter. That's not been their previous position on these policies. As Chait points out, the Post has long beat the drum for cutting farm subsidies. What's more, while they find the "millionaires' minimum tax" to be far more modest than all the hype suggests, they nevertheless endorse it.

This is all deeply strange. On some days, the Post's editors advocate for these things -- in the case of cutting farm subsidies, they do so unrelentingly. But today, they undertake a sort of self-negation of their own beliefs. Why have a perch for policy advocacy in the first place, if you don't plan to be an advocate at the very moment such advocacy is needed?

Well, I think Yglesias basically answered this question -- membership in the Cult of Seriousness demands that you start speaking in bipartisan Newspeak to avoid the gaucheness of favoring one side in a debate. So, from time to time -- when it's easy, when nothing is at stake -- the Post's editors take bold stands. But when the rubber hits the road, they wither away, deny their own previously held positions, and evince very little effort in terms of demonstrating an understanding of the debate. High stakes bring out a cowardly, dumbed-down group of editors, and taken as a whole, it really puts a burden on all the other Post contributors to continue to provide a reason for subscribing to their newspaper.

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Do These Things, Don't Cut Entitlements