The idea of using the debt ceiling crisis as the lever to enact both long-term entitlement reform as well as a simplification of the tax code was a good one. But the details of the deal House Speaker John Boehner tried to work out with President Obama along these lines turned out to be a bridge too far. While the failure of the talks to achieve a far reaching accord rather than a short-term solution to the debt ceiling is being blamed solely on GOP hardliners, the real problem may have been more a matter of President Obama’s unreliability than Boehner being sandbagged by political purists in his own party.
Boehner’s basic vision for a grand rather than a limited deal on the debt was sound. If the Democrats would agree to drastic cuts in spending on entitlements as well as tax reform, then the result would have been a serious plan to reduce the deficit without growth-killing tax increases. But, as the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page stated succinctly on Saturday, the negotiations fueled suspicions among the Republican leadership, and not just the Tea Party caucus, that the Democrats could not be trusted to enact bold tax reform once they had already pocketed tax increases. Unless both parts of the deal were enacted simultaneously, there was no reason either President Obama or recalcitrant congressional Democrats would fulfill their part of the bargain. So rather than rabid right-wingers being to blame for the situation, it may have been liberal Democrats, who had no interest in a deal that would force them to give up their demagogic attacks on the GOP on entitlements, who were at fault.
There’s no question many on the right were skeptical about Boehner’s proposal. Some purists believe the expansion of the debt ceiling for any reason is illegitimate since it means continuing to live beyond our means and that any deal would just feed the government monster. Others thought any rise in government revenues was immoral. But were the two ends of this compromise enacted together rather than in a staggered fashion, I think Boehner would have been able to carry the vast majority of his caucus with him.
But since the deal is so complicated, doing it all at once was improbable if not impossible. And that meant that tax reform would have gone last. That meant trusting not only Obama but also House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to help push it through after everything else was done. Given that the Democrats don’t believe in this vision and have partisan reasons for sabotaging a deal that would prevent them from ranting about evil Republicans throwing grandma over the cliff, the GOP had good reason to be distrustful.
Sooner or later, Congress will have to enact the sort of far reaching entitlement cuts and tax reform that Boehner wanted. It would have been better for the country if it had happened now rather than in the future. But the blame for this delay deserves to be pinned as much, if not more, on untrustworthy Democrats as on hard line Republicans.