May 13 (Bloomberg) — When it comes to deficit reduction, President Barack Obama may have correctly taken the measure of Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles and U.S. corporate leaders; that’s a reason why any deficit deal is more remote than ever.
Two and a half years ago, when the president refused to embrace the recommendations of his own deficit-reduction panel, he was criticized by the authors, Bowles, a former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, and Simpson, a former Republican senator from Wyoming, as well as by business leaders.
The plan proposed a balance of spending reductions and tax increases of about $4 trillion over almost a decade; that would bring the long-term debt to a sustainable level, according to proponents, who said the president was abdicating leadership.
Privately, Obama saw the proposal as a trap. If he embraced it, Republicans would say, “let’s focus on areas where we agree — spending, including entitlement cuts — and return later to raising revenue.” Then, he feared, Simpson, Bowles and those worried executives would provide aid and comfort for that position, handing a devastating defeat to Democrats.
In these recurring budget battles, Obama deserves his share of blame. At the turn of the year, he was unwilling to hang tough for an entitlements-revenue deal as tax increases loomed for all Americans. He blinked and accepted a smaller tax increase on the wealthy. The White House then miscalculated that the mindless across-the-board spending cuts under sequestration were so bad that an alternative would emerge.
Yet, a month ago, Obama took a risk and proposed a budget containing cuts to entitlements cherished by his party. House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, and his cohorts were unmoved; they wouldn’t give an inch on new revenue.
Simpson and Bowles gave Obama a pat on the back and largely refrained from criticizing Ryan or House Speaker John Boehner, while corporate leaders ducked.
Moreover, Simpson and Bowles have revised their plan and moved to the right, proposing proportionately more spending cuts and less in new revenue. Obama is playing ball, Ryan isn’t, and the two deficit hawks, and their CEO supporters, are rewarding the guy who is stiffing them.
Simpson and Bowles have been admirably persistent, open to some modifications and correctly insistent on the need to curb long-term health-care costs. A spokesman offered this explanation for their latest move to the right: Republicans now control the House. Sorry, Republicans had just won a huge victory, taking control of the House, and were on a high when Bowles-Simpson was first offered in December 2010.
What’s really going on is that their fervent hope for a deal rests on a naïve assumption that the able Ryan will strike a responsible compromise, even though he has made clear that he won’t.
The Republican position is that taxes went up as part of the deal on the so-called fiscal cliff, and there will be no more increases. In reality, all the tax cuts enacted under President George W. Bush were slated to expire anyway, and Republican congressional leaders, their backs against the wall, had to accept some higher levies on the wealthy.
Moreover, that $600 billion, over a decade, is only a little more than half of what Bowles-Simpson proposed. In addition, the new revenue is dwarfed by spending cuts, which have been more than twice as large.