WILLIAM GALSTON MARCH 1, 2010
In a superb speech at the Brookings Institution this afternoon, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer called on the United States—elected representatives and average citizens alike—to “rededicate ourselves to the painful, unglamorous, and indispensible work of fiscal discipline.” Drawing on the studies of leading economists and historians, he warned that failing to do so would be committing ourselves to national decline. What is happening in Greece, he declared, can happen here: “If we don’t change course, it will happen here.”
While rejecting the ideologically-driven belief that “our budget deficit snapped into existence at noon on January 20, 2009,” he was ecumenical in his criticism:
“When it comes to budgeting, what is politically easy is often fiscally deadly. It is easier to pay for tax cuts with borrowed money than with lower spending; easier to hide the true costs of war than to lay those costs before the people; easier to promise special cost-of-living adjustments than explain why an increase is not justified under the formula in law; easier to promise 95% of Americans that we won’t consider raising their taxes than to ask all Americans to contribute for the common good.”
These words will evoke heartburn among the leaders of both political parties, and at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. They happen to be true.
As the earliest leader of either party to endorse a bipartisan fiscal commission, Hoyer had no difficulty endorsing the commission President Obama created by executive order after the effort to create one through legislation collapsed (regrettably, in Hoyer’s view). But he went on to do something much more difficult than calling for bipartisanship—namely, putting some concrete options on the table:
“On the side of entitlement spending, an agreement might recognize that Americans are living longer lives and raise the retirement age over a period of years, or even peg the retirement age to lifespan. Another option is to make Social Security and Medicare benefits more progressive, while strengthening the safety net for low-income Americans. That could preserve those programs as a central part of our social compact, while protecting their ability to help those of us in the greatest need.
“On the side of revenues, President Obama was correct in refusing to take any options off of the commission’s table. No one likes raising revenue, and understandably so. But if you’re going to buy, you need to pay. In 1993, President Clinton proposed an economic plan aimed at accomplishing fiscal balance, and he paved the way for the greatest American prosperity in a generation. The bipartisan tax compromise in 1986 also showed the importance of a simplified, more efficient tax code. If need be, and I hopeful that both parties will agree to look at revenues as part of the solution—not as a gateway to higher spending, but as part of a compromise that cuts spending and balances the budget.”
Hoyer praised Republican Paul Ryan’s program as an honest effort to tell the public exactly what he’d cut to restore fiscal discipline without raising taxes. Indeed, Hoyer commented, “As much as his party’s leadership tries to distance itself from his plan, Paul Ryan’s program, or something very much like it, is the logical outcome of the Republican rhetoric of cutting taxes and deficits at the same time.” Indeed it is, unless Republicans are serious about cutting taxes but unserious about cutting deficits—a proposition for which it is easy to mobilize three decades of evidence, unfortunately.
In the end, Hoyer argued, Congress and the American people will prefer a balanced approach to one that either tries to stabilize taxes while gutting Medicare or that tries to preserve the Medicare status quo at the cost of huge tax increases. I think he’s right about that. Still, as he conceded, there’s no guarantee that our badly polarized system can reach a reasonable result. The only certainty is that our failure to do so will be a self-inflicted disaster.
This is, Hoyer concluded, much more than a policy issue. It is a measure, and test, of our character: “If we are unable to raise our heads even for a moment above the daily partisan fight, if the collapse comes—we will deserve it.” Amen.