WILLIAM GALSTON FEBRUARY 19, 2010
Because Congress failed to adopt a bipartisan deficit commission on its own, President Obama created one through executive order on Thursday. This comes as a disappointment to members of both parties who had endorsed the Conrad-Gregg bill: that proposal would have forced the Congress to vote on the commission’s recommendations, while the administration’s initiative does not.
The failure of Conrad-Gregg was surprising as well as troubling. By last December, the bill had garnered almost three dozen cosponsors across party lines and seemed to be gaining momentum. Although Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell had not formally signed on, he had made a number of favorable public statements. (Last May, for example, he proclaimed on the Senate floor that the Conrad-Gregg proposal was “the best way to address the crisis” and that it “would provide an expedited pathway for fixing these profound long-term challenges.”) And just days before the vote, President Obama endorsed the bill.
But it wasn’t enough. On January 26, the bill went down to defeat: 53 senators voted in favor, but it needed 60 to pass. Democrats assembled a solid majority of 37 votes, while Republicans could muster only 16. As has been widely reported, seven of the bill’s Republican cosponsors ended up voting against it; had they remained resolute, it would have passed. Reversing his earlier position, the minority leader also voted against the bill.
So what happened between December and January? Put simply, the forces within the conservative movement who oppose any and all tax increases mobilized against legislation that might have produced the long-sought grand bargain—significant entitlement reform coupled with additional revenues.
On December 9, Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform sent a letter to Conrad and Gregg expressing his opposition to their proposal. “Despite the appearance of protection for taxpayers,” he wrote, “this commission would guarantee a net tax increase. … In order to make this commission acceptable from a taxpayer perspective, language must be included that explicitly removes tax increases and/or new taxes from commission consideration.” The substantial anti-tax coalition Norquist leads then swung into action with a steady drumbeat of op-eds and open letters to elected officials.
Even more significant was a lead editorial in The Wall Street Journal on December 29. After issuing a thinly veiled warning to Republicans who might go along with the plan and denouncing past bipartisan efforts--including the 1983 Greenspan Social Security commission and the 1990 Andrews Air Force Base summit--the Journal launched a preemptive strike against the kind of deal it feared a Conrad-Gregg commission would reach: “Democrats would agree to means-test entitlements, which means that middle and upper-middle class (i.e., GOP) voters would get less than they were promised in return for a lifetime of payroll taxes. … In return, Republicans would agree to an increase in the top income tax rate to as high as 49% and in addition to a new energy tax, a stock transaction tax, or value added tax. The Indians got a better deal for selling Manhattan.”
In short, the Journal opposed not only new taxes, but also progressivity in spending cuts. The only remaining alternatives to national bankruptcy (although the editorial writer wasn’t candid enough to say so) are draconian cuts imposed on those Americans who can least endure them.
In the few weeks following the editorial, the intensifying pressure proved too much for many Republicans. The seven Conrad-Gregg deserters included Robert Bennett, Kay Bailey Hutchison, and John McCain, all of whom are embroiled in tough primary campaigns, along with Sam Brownback, who’s running for governor of Kansas, and John Ensign, who’s already in more than enough trouble.
Also of interest is the roster of 16 Republicans who stood up to the pressure and held their ground. In addition to four senators who are retiring and have little to lose, the honor roll includes a dozen who will have to answer to the forces that Norquist and the Journal represent: Lamar Alexander, Saxby Chambliss, Susan Collins, Bob Corker, John Cornyn, Mike Enzi, Lindsey Graham, Johnny Isakson, Mike Johanns, Dick Lugar, David Vitter, and Roger Wicker. (Olympia Snowe is conspicuous by her absence, yet another in a lengthening list of disappointing performances.) Whatever their substantive views on fiscal policy, these are public servants who at least take the responsibility of governance seriously and understand that no single party—whether today’s Democratic majority or a possible future Republican majority—can discharge this responsibility on its own.
And that’s the issue: Will the Republican party remain beholden to the forces that Grover Norquist and The Wall Street Journal represent? Does the party just want to mobilize popular grievances in the effort to regain power, or is it willing to help govern our country and address its mounting problems? Beyond undermining campaign finance legislation, Mitch McConnell is interested in only one thing—winning elections—an outlook apparently shared by two-thirds of his colleagues. The question is whether the minority of the minority party can ever get together with the majority of the majority to find real solutions—and then level with the people about what these solutions will mean. The alternative to a new governing coalition is the intensification both of our problems and of public contempt for its elected representatives.