Jacob Heilbrunn

"Chickencrap" or Smart Politics?

The incoming speaker of the House, John Boehner, says its "chickencrap." He's referring to the plan of the House Democrats to vote this afternoon on extending the Bush tax cuts for those who make less than $250,000. It's good theater. The Senate Republicans have already made it clear that they won't reach any compromise with President Obama on any bills unless he extends the tax cuts in toto. Meanwhile, the president himself says that "people of good will" can reach some kind of accommodation.

But the real action is elsewhere. For all the huffing and puffing about the tax cuts, the Simpson-Bowles debt commission now has nine yea votes. It would take 14 members of the commission to sign on for the commission's proposal to go up for a vote before Congress. Too bad it probably won't happen. But the commission has laid down the lineaments for a compromise on slashing the deficit. Senators Tom Coburn and Michael D. Crapo, for example, are endorsing the plan, which, among other things, gets rid of a host of distortions in the tax code, including the home mortgage deduction. It also calls for raising age eligibility for Social Security and for cutting the defense budget. Both are sound measures. Overall, the plan is supposed to remove about $4 trillion in projected deficits over the next decade.

According to Coburn and Crapo

Doing nothing will, sooner rather than later, guarantee that this nation becomes a second-rate power with less opportunity and less freedom. The plan developed by the debt commission, while flawed and incomplete, will help America avoid this fate and secure freedom for future generations.”

Both conservatives and liberals are howling about the plan. Conservatives argue that it doesn't end the new healthcare plan. Liberals are enraged by the proposed entitlements cuts and argue that it's imperative to keep stimulating the economy, which, by the way, finally appears to be perking up. But how the looming deficits are supposed to be cut without some sacrifice is a mystery that neither side can answer. At some point America's creditors will lose confidence in its ability to pay back its debt--as the economist Herbert Stein famously said, it goes on until it can't. No one wants to see the day when America can't.

The Simpson-Bowles plan is, in essence, a conservative one, at least in the sense that it enforces fiscal responsibility, a credo that was once the calling card of the GOP. What the commission is proposing isn't chicken feed.