If Wishes Were Horses Then Bipartisan Commissions Would Reach Reasonable Accommodations

Kevin Drum wants a Social Security grand bargain:

I’m entirely in favor of a Social Security commission, similar to the 1983 commission, tasked with producing a conventional basket of small revenue increases and small benefit cuts that would balance Social Security’s book in the long term. This is, admittedly, a relatively small thing, since Social Security’s fiscal condition has improved over the past few years and is now projected to eventually go out of balance by only about 1.5% of GDP. But aside from the virtue of even small acts of fiscal rectitude, it would also have the huge virtue of taking Social Security off the table as a political issue. If we could, at long last, get the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal and the Peterson folks to quit droning on endlessly about this, we might actually clear the way for discussion of some real issues. And it’s the kind of thing that can be put in place now and credibly be expected to unfold as planned.

I’m not in favor of this, but I’m not against it either. Which is to say I don’t think appointing such a commission would be a good idea, but if Barack Obama did appoint me to the commission I’d agree to a package like that. Or if I were a member of congress and a bipartisan bill enacting this kind of program were on the floor, I would vote for it. But would any Republicans?

I feel like people keep forgetting about this, but the post-1992 conservative movement absolutely refuses to vote for tax increases. I’m not sure what the ideological justification for this posture is supposed to be — Saint Ronald Reagan signed a number of tax increases — but it’s clearly part of the catechism, has been for years, and will likely be formally enshrined in the new RNC purity test. This was the problem with the whole farcical spring/summer quest for a bipartisan health care bill. You couldn’t possibly do a deficit-neutral universal health care bill without raising taxes, and conservatives won’t vote for tax hikes. But if Republicans won’t vote for tax hikes, then you can’t have a bipartisan agreement to raise taxes and trim benefits growth.


Kevin’s plan is going to play out along the lines of a familiar script. First, Barack Obama proposes something sensible and centrist like a balanced package of benefit cuts and tax hikes. Then this becomes defined as the extreme left pole of the debate. Then because Max Baucus and Kent Conrad are moderates, it needs to be balanced further in the direction of spending cuts. Then the administration embraces that proposal and it becomes defined as the extreme left pole of the debate. Then because Evan Bayh and Blanche Lincoln are moderates, it needs to be balanced even further in the direction of spending cuts. Then because the package is more than zero percent tax increases, it passes with at most the support of Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, and conservatives denounce the Democrats as tax-and-spend liberals who want to punish workers and seniors alike in order to finance giveaways to ACORN and death panels. Then Alan Greenspan applauds politely, and then when the GOP gets back into office they propose large cuts in income taxes on the wealthy and he applauds that loudly.

I say: No thanks. Some day the Chamber of Commerce may become concerned about the looming bankruptcy of the United States of America and start delivering conservative votes for a balanced approach to the long-term fiscal gap. And when they do I and all responsible liberals will support such an approach. But until then what’s the point? To sound reasonable? Okay. I’m reasonable. But you can’t have a one-party bipartisan compromise — that’s silly. So as long as conservative politicians claim to believe that future taxes should be lower than current taxes, there’s really not much for a commission to do.