The prospects for achieving a 14-vote supermajority to approve the fiscally brutal recommendations of President Obama’s deficit reduction commission appear uphill at best, with some panel members still unwilling to endorse the whole, controversial plan to cut $4 trillion from the federal deficit. But even if the 18-member panel does not approve the document Friday, its work is still a huge advance in both deficit reduction and the handling of public policy.
The plan--aptly called "The Moment of Truth"--includes what every sweeping policy document or piece of legislation needs: something for everyone to hate. It suggests raising the retirement age, cutting spending, and eliminating such popular tax breaks as the deduction for home mortgage interest. Washington’s special interests industry predictably hyperventilated at the release of the document.
And the political pressure brought by those interests, combined with genuine and understandable concern by various members of Congress, may indeed keep the plan from reaching Capitol Hill for a vote. There are surely some items in the plan that could be tweaked; the mortgage interest deduction, for example, is critical to encouraging home ownership, and its elimination would almost certainly depress house prices. But the deduction needn’t be infinite; a cap on the deductible interest allowed could increase revenues and help first-time home buyers while stopping the subsidies for McMansions. The Social Security retirement age could be tweaked to address workers in highly physical jobs that are not so easily performed after age 65.
But the mere fact that a bipartisan group sat down and came up with such an unvarnished assessment of the debt and deficit crisis is a very welcome step in and of itself. The debt is not merely a fiscal annoyance; it is a national security issue. Selling so much debt to China puts the United States in a weakened negotiating position on matter far beyond the financial. Something dramatic needs to be done, no matter how severe the political fallout.
The late Senate Edward M. Kennedy, who shepherded many sweeping bills through the Senate, remarked to me once that it takes three Congresses to approve game-changing legislation: the first Congress usually reject the idea overwhelming, afraid of change. The next one considers it more seriously, and comes close to approving it. And the third Congress ends up passing it easily, often as an expanded version of the rejected original. Housing anti-discrimination legislation was one example, Kennedy noted, with Congress first dismissing the idea, but then eventually passing a housing equality law that included such categories as age, and whether or not one had children, as factors protected under the law.
The country can’t wait three Congresses to get the deficit and debt under control. But the work of the commission is an important impetus for action.