Kicking the Fiscal Grenade Down the Road

December 14, 2013 Topic: CongressPolitics Region: United States

Kicking the Fiscal Grenade Down the Road

It wasn't the right time for another budget showdown. But that time is coming, and cannot be avoided.

Chris Matthews of MSNBC was waxing indignant on Wednesday evening about the conservative Republicans who oppose the Paul Ryan-Patty Murray budget deal. He said they were engaged in a kind of “monster mash” display of stupidity and self-immolation. Of course he needn’t have wasted so much indignation on them, though he has plenty to spare, given that they were brushed aside in Thursday’s House vote on the budget deal.

But Matthews and other enflamed liberals must pummel the conservatives, even when this opposition contingent isn’t displaying much political clout, because they know their own hold on the political debate these days is tenuous, even with the leg-tingling Barack Obama in the White House—perhaps particularly with the leg-tingling Obama in the White House. And they know further that these conservative Republicans—Rand Paul and Marco Rubio notable among them—are holding some big cards in the country’s ongoing fiscal debate.

The fact is, America’s long-term debt overhang probably represents its greatest national threat at this time. Any effort to address it will inevitably force a clamp on liberals’ cherished “entitlement” programs, such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. These are popular programs throughout the land, and finding a way to trim them back as part of a long-term effort to address the country’s debt crisis won’t be easy. The time to do it would have been a generation ago, when very small adjustments in the entitlement formulas could have had a huge impact on these programs’ long-term fiscal health, and the country’s.

But that opportunity was lost, and now the problem is both more profound and more threatening. Chris Matthews and his fellow liberals don’t care. They’ll keep their heads buried in various prairie-dog holes in order to avoid seeing just how parched and desolate the fiscal landscape really is. And when they come up for air, they will chatter away, like prairie dogs, in denigration of those warning about the country’s accumulating debt.

But a reckoning is nigh, and those “monster mash” Republicans will be well positioned, when the crisis hits, to emerge as having been sound thinkers all along. Then they won’t be ignored.

In the meantime, they won’t hold sway, and rightly so, as Congress votes on what Wall Street Journal reporters Janet Hook and Kristina Peterson called a “craftsmanlike monument to the power of pragmatism.” The deal, they wrote, is based upon “a narrow slice of common ground” and designed largely to prevent another crisis surrounding another threat of a government shutdown. And while the New York Times suggested that antideal Republicans, along with some opposition Democrats, were “raising the level of drama,” in reality there wasn’t much drama in a vote with an ordained outcome.

The Journal’s editorial page had it about right when it called the fiscal plan a “least bad budget deal” and noted that it included no tax increases or no new incentives for not working, but did include some modest entitlement reforms. It added: “Oh, and it will avoid another shutdown fiasco, assuming enough Republicans refuse to attempt suicide a second time.”

Enough Republicans did, at least in the House. But the “monster mash” conservatives are correct in arguing that the deal, ostensibly a decade-long accommodation, will do absolutely nothing to address the country’s looming debt crisis. In the short term, it would undo some of the budget cutting of the sequester fiscal program instituted last March. Discretionary spending on defense and domestic programs would rise from $967 billion in the current fiscal year to $1.012 trillion, then rise again to $1.014 trillion in the next fiscal year.

But over the coming decade, if you believe the math, spending would decline slightly through increased fees on airline tickets, greater employee-contribution levels in the federal retirement program, reduced military-pension payouts from projected levels, and a two-year extension of a 2 percent cut in payments to Medicare doctors (a program that is reducing the number of doctors willing to accept Medicare patients).

This is all tinkering at best against the looming debt buildup. Federal debt now exceeds 70 percent of gross domestic product and is heading,
according to the Congressional Budget Office, toward 89 percent by 2020 if current policies and practices remain in place. The budget deal put forth by republican Congressman Paul Ryan and Democratic Senator Patty Murray pretty much accepts that current policies and practices will remain in place. “It’s a baby step and it’s a little tiny baby step,” Arizona’s GOP Representative Matt Salmon told NPR.="#v=onepage&q=according%20to%20the%20congressional%20budget%20office%20federal%20debt%20%2289%20percent%22%20of%20gdp%20by%202022&f=false">

But House Speaker John Boehner begs to differ. He said, “If you are for more deficit reduction, you are for this agreement.” Presumably this is because it allows for further efforts by congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle to pursue further fiscal restraints. And he termed "ridiculous" the suggestions of his fellow Republicans—the “monster mash” types—that the entire political system should be held hostage to their call for serious and lasting deficit reductions through major curtailments in the federal governing mandate.

Like the Journal editorial page, Boehner is probably right in arguing that the time is not right for any kind of serious partisan confrontation on the federal budget. There is nothing to gain from it—and plenty for Republicans to lose in any repeat of the government shutdown earlier this year. But that does not mean the time won’t come. It will come, either through the emergence of a political consensus wrought by visions of a deteriorating future, or through the political imperatives that will emerge with the onset of the financial crisis heading our way under current fiscal policies.

So the folks at MSNBC can ridicule and mock the “monster mash” Republicans as they play their small role in the current drama. Boehner and the Journal can warn against these firebrands’ tactical folly. American generally can feel relief that they are kept away from the inner workings of the government. But eventually the looming danger they are warning against—and which underlies their political identity—will make its way to the center of American politics. Then perhaps Chris Matthews and his cronies will find themselves looking like the “monster mash” guys.

Robert W. Merry is political editor of The National Interest and the author of books on American history and foreign policy. His most recent book is Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians.

Image: Flickr/Eli Christman. CC BY 2.0.