JONATHAN COHN NOVEMBER 28, 2011
Lord help me, but I have to agree with Grover Norquist about something.
A primary subject on Sunday’s talks shows and, more generally, media reports of the last few days has been the "failure" of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction – a.k.a., the Super-Committee.
As you know, the Super-Committee’s members could not agree on plan to reduce the ten-year budget deficit by at least $1.5 trillion. As a result, automatic spending cuts of $1.2 trillion – what’s known as a “sequester” – are now set to take effect in January, 2013.
But does that really mean the Super-Committee failed? Or, more precisely, that its failure should matter? Appearing on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Norquist said no:
Because they couldn’t come up with a list, it goes to a sequester. That's not a failure. That was option 2. The politicians couldn’t come up with a list, so you go to an across-the-board sequester.
Norquist is absolutely right about this. And since he seems to be one of the very few people in Washington who gets this, maybe it’s worth reviewing the history here.
Over the summer, during the debate over the debt ceiling, Republicans and Democrats debated how to reduce the deficit. They agreed on an initial package of spending cuts, of about $1 trillion, and then agreed to make a second round of cuts, worth a little more than $1 trillion. But they couldn't come to full agreement on how to make that second round of cuts, so they left themselves two options.
One was to keep talking and negotiating, via the Super-Committee, and produce a package that could pass Congress. But since both Democrats and Republicans knew that such agreement would be difficult -- after all, they'd been debating these same questions for months -- they created an alternative. If the committee were to deadlock or if Congress couldn't pass the committee's proposal, then the sequester and its automatic spending cuts would take effect. That's the "option 2" Norquist mentions. And it's what we ended up getting.
Sure, option 2 may not be attractive to a lot of people. Conservatives in particular don’t like the fact that the sequester includes significant cuts to the Pentagon budget. Liberals (like me) aren’t happy with the cuts to discretionary domestic spending – which, on top of previous cuts, will seriously hinder the government’s ability to perform some basic functions, like food inspections. But that’s what happens when you refuse, as Republicans (and conservatives like Norquist) have, to contemplate raising significantly new revenue as part of deficit reduction.
I'm not happy about that, but that's a separate discussion -- one we should be starting right now. Fortunately, Paul Krugman is doing that...