A few days ago I sat on a panel primarily made up of former Members of Congress. The Association of Former Members, along with the National Archives sponsored this discussion, which was moderated by a distinguished university professor. It’s safe to say it was a full-fledged, typical Washington group of well-intentioned pontificators. It’s amazing how smart we former Members get, once we are out of office. Surprisingly (to me, any way) it was well attended.
The subject of the evening was modern political campaigns and how they have changed. The obvious points were made about modern technology (i.e., “You can’t get away with nothing.”), social media, the huge amounts of money raised and spent, the negative TV ads and the increasing divisiveness in politics.
According to most of my colleagues on the panel, this divisiveness is responsible for almost everything that ails our government. Why? Because it keeps us from achieving the ultimate solution to all of our problems. And that solution? “Compromise.”
If we could only get back to the glorious days of compromise, we could solve our fiscal problems practically over night. The most favored compromise of the hour, of course, is the one favored by all of the “right thinking” people in Washington, the main-stream media, and the Democratic Party (maybe they are all one and the same): Let’s raise taxes in exchange for spending cuts. Presto! It’s the obvious solution to all our debt and deficit problems, if only “we,” meaning Republicans, would only compromise. So, when it came to my turn to speak, I had a slightly different view … 180-degrees different.
Unfortunately, due to limited time, I had to put aside a couple of ideas that immediately came to mind. For example, that President Obama was doing more to divide this country than all of the other politicians put together. Also, that tax increases in a near-recession are always a bad idea.
Instead, I focused on the main topic at hand, and I took the position that compromise itself was greatly overrated. Compromise begs the questions: “Compromise what?” and “Compromise to do what?” In fact compromise is often the easy solution for the politician, not the difficult one. It’s a way to kick the hard can down the road. Compromise is one of the reasons we’re in the fix we’re in today. What is the history of the “raise taxes and reduce spending” compromise that is so popular in elite circles today? It is this: We get the tax increases but not the spending cuts.
After having already enacted major tax cuts in 1982, Ronald Reagan agreed to raise business and excise taxes in exchange for spending reductions. Taxes went up, but so did spending by $450 billion.
President George H.W. Bush cut a similar deal with Democrats. Again, we got the taxes but the spending cuts never materialized.
There is simply no proven way to guarantee that the spending-cuts part of the compromise will be implemented. Is it any wonder that Republicans are taking a hard line of this? Since spending is the source of the problem anyway, cuts must be enacted first.
Meanwhile, even though we balanced the budget for a few years in the ’90s, we have steadily walked toward the edge of the fiscal cliff as our entitlement obligations grow. The edge is where we stand today. The elections in France and Greece demonstrate that it’s virtually impossible to cut spending once the bond markets, because of a country’s profligacy, throw a country into crisis. We must avoid this fate at all costs. But spending controls must be done straight up and not as part of another phony compromise.