JONATHAN COHN JULY 31, 2011
Maybe the final terms of the deficit reduction deal between President Obama and congressional Republicans will turn out to be less horrible than what the media is reporting and some TNR sources are saying (although very few people seem to have first-hand knowledge of what's in the deal). But the August 2 deadline for hitting the debt ceiling is nearly upon us. If there's a last chance to alter the deal, this is it. So go ahead and scream.
The outlines of the agreement have been clear for several days now. The first step would be about $1 trillion in discretionary spending cuts, on which the two parties have basically agreed. The second step would be a series of additional deficit reduction, either via recommendations by a bipartisan “super committee” of lawmakers, approval of a balanced budget amendment by Congress, or a series of automatic cuts divided between the Pentagon budget and Medicare.
That last part – the “trigger” – is what makes the deal so difficult to swallow. As discussed previously, the primary goal here is to threaten both parties with unappealing options if they fail to act on the super-commission's recommendations. And, with that in mind, Obama and Democrats initially sought a trigger that would achieve automatic deficit reduction through a mix of new revenues (unappealing to Republicans) and entitlement cuts (unappealing to Democrats).
The debate played out as a microcosm of the debt ceiling debate as a whole: Republicans threatened to torpedo the whole deal if the trigger included new revenue, so Obama retreated. It appears he’s agreed to substitute automatic defense cuts for automatic revenue increases.
The problem is that, these days, plenty of Republicans support cuts in defense spending. Or, at the very least, they don't find them as objectionable as they once did, notwithstanding the best efforts of defense contractor lobbyists. That would increase their leverage in the committee negotiations, making it more likely that the end result is substantial cuts to entitlements. (The media seems to be missing this point completely, at least based on what I'm reading and seeing right now.)
Again, I can't be sure the trigger is that unappealing, because the substantive details are not yet available and may not be set in stone yet. (Believe me, I'd like to be wrong.) A lot depends on the size and nature of the automatic Medicare cuts – specifically, how big are they? Whom would they affect?
Some sources are saying the automatic cuts would affect only providers and producers of medical care, not beneficiaries – in other words, it'd reduce what the program pays doctors, hospitals, device makers, and the like, but it wouldn't reduce the level of financial protection beneficiaries get. That'd help a bit.
But keep the following facts in mind. The Affordable Care Act reduced Medicare spending by about a half trillion dollars, on net, and did so at the same time it expanded insurance coverage, effectively softening the blow on the health care system. Another round of cuts of that magnitude or greater, in the next ten years, would be a very substantial reduction in spending. I haven't had time to check this out thoroughly, but I'd at least worry about the impact of such cuts on the health care system, depending on their timing and specific design.
Is it too late to change the terms? I’m honestly not sure.
This bill will not pass without substantial Democratic votes in one if not both houses of Congress. (Senate Democratic sources are telling TNR the president should not count on their votes.) That gives Democrats leverage, perhaps enough to demand slightly better terms on the trigger or perhaps another concession. Or maybe this is the time to insist upon an extension of unemployment insurance and a payroll tax holiday, ideas that were part of the conversation just a week ago.
Then again, the clock is ticking. This deal is so tentative, and so fragile, that a failure to pass anything remains a very real possibility. A failure to raise the debt ceiling really does risk awful consequences.
Why we’re in this situation (hint: it involves this guy) and what progressives could do to repair the damage afterwards (hint: it involves the Bush tax cuts) will be the subject of another post. For now, though, the best outcome would be to make this awful deal less awful. And even that may not be possible. As Greg Sargent concludes, "it appears the GOP is on the verge of a huge and unprecedented victory." But that may be a foregone conclusion.