In 1901 Frederick Burr Opper's comic strip featuring two overly polite and deferential Frenchmen, Alphonse and Gaston first appeared in William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal. In fact they were so polite that they always insisted that the other go first. As a result, they never went anywhere and never did anything.
No one can accuse the nation's lawmakers of 2011 of being overly polite or deferential despite a marked, if temporary, decline in political vitriol. So what then is the cause of the failure to get somewhere or do something to address the long-term fiscal crisis (aka entitlements) we face either in the president's fiscal year 2012 (FY12) budget or by the GOP? Some attribute this to a lack of political courage or its converse, the instinct for political survival. And there is some truth to that. To paraphrase H.L. Menken, no one ever got elected by over estimating the willingness of the American people to sacrifice.
But, the situation may be more complex. Jack Lew, the director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and a veteran of many budget fights in Congress and the executive branch, argues that when President Reagan floated a comprehensive budget plan in 1981 it set the process back two years. Better to have some behind the scenes bipartisan consensus before fighting out the final details in public. Perhaps, and such an effort appears to be underway in the Senate.
The problem with this is time. The hoards of new GOP members of Congress, many of whom won on the enthusiasm of the Tea Party, have shown that they are on a mission and have no intention of compromising. By the time they learn the limits of their power and the imperative to compromise to get a bill to the president's desk, the 2012 presidential campaign may be in full swing. And the bruising battles sure to occur around the fiscal year 2011 (FY11) continuing resolution will not make comity or compromise easier. While we can hope that a courageous GOP candidate -- perhaps Gov. Mitch Daniels (IN) -- or the GOP FY12 budget due in April will lay out a comprehensive long-term plan to address the deficit and debt, those a long shots. So if a bipartisan approach cannot be worked out - perhaps only on the easiest issue, Social Security - by summer, it is likely to be put off to 2013.
It is a risky bet to think that our creditors will wait quietly while our politics unfold. And it is a worse bet to think that the public can continue to be spared the scale of the shared sacrifice needed to address the problem and then accept it when it is suddenly thrust upon them in two years. Despite some attempt to let the cat fully out of the bag, the public is being sheltered. It needs to be educated. And that takes time. And the education needed is not just about the size of the fiscal crisis and the potential dire consequences of not addressing it. The country needs to be told that nearly every citizen, nearly every group, nearly every organization will have to make serious sacrifices. Americans' response to the Simpson Bowles deficit reduction recommendations was universally positive, until it came to those recommendations that adversely affected them individually. Then support plummeted.
Every responsible political leader from the president down needs to stop relying on vague warnings that the fiscal problems are daunting and that difficult decisions are ahead. If they are not ready to set out a detailed plan, if they want to continue to play Alphonse and Gaston, fine. But at least let them follow the physician's oath and first do no harm.
This means to tell three hard truths. First, that the "small ball" cuts proposed in the President's FY12 budget and the House GOP FY11continuing resolution along with ending earmarks will do nothing to solve the long term deficit problem. Second, cuts alone will be insufficient, new revenues will be needed. Third, the degree of sacrifice needed to deal with entitlements will make the small ball cuts look painless.
It must be made clear to every audience addressed on this subject that they, not just someone else, will have to share the burden of program cuts and revenue increases. The American people deserve leaders who will treat them like adults, lay out the size of the shared sacrifice needed and work together to meet the enormous fiscal challenges we face.