-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan
In my post yesterday, I discussed the proposed Tax Receipt Act, which would provide a very limited amount of information on federal spending to each person who files an income tax return each year. I argued that the idea was likely to (and was probably in part designed to) create pressure for unnecessary and damaging cuts in future Social Security benefits, thus relieving pressure on the real culprit of any possible long-term debt drama: health care costs. (As Paul Krugman recently noted, the forecasts on which budget hawks rely show that any long-run debt problems can be summarized "in seven words: health care, health care, health care, revenue." In other words, the Bush/Obama tax cuts are the only other moving part that matters.) I also argued that the motivating idea behind sending receipts to taxpayers was fundamentally anti-democratic, as well as inherently misleading.
Even so, there is a great deal of support for tax receipts among Democrats and nominal liberals. President Obama, major newspapers, and large numbers of Democrats in the House and Senate are lining up behind the idea that people deserve to know "what YOUR taxes paid for." That last phrase comes (with capitalization in the original) from a broadcast email from a group called Third Way, which is the ideological heir to the Democratic Leadership Council and its disastrous triangulation strategies. That crowd has been inordinately powerful in Democratic circles for over two decades now, always pushing the Democrats to move to the right, no matter how far right it has already moved. (Groups like Third Way do not get everything wrong, of course. They have endorsed, for example, the idea of an infrastructure bank. Even there, however, the proposal is weak tea, as I will discuss in a future post.)
Such groups are, however, merely manifestations of the Democrats' enduring problem: rather than standing for anything, too many Democrats allow the agenda to be set by their opponents, then grab onto the things that poll well and say, "We're for that, too -- but less so."
The best indication of the power of the me-too movement is, of course, the state of the deficit debate. With an unemployment rate that has ranged between 8.9 and 9.4% over the last year, Democrats have allowed the entire debate to become a matter of how big the immediate cuts will be. They claim to have heard the message of the "shellacking" in the mid-terms, concluding that they can only compete by being slightly more compassionate conservatives (where compassion includes being willing to cut funds for heating the homes of the poor).
This timidity is well known, of course, but it is nonetheless a surprise to see the extremes to which Democrats will go to avoid taking a stand. There is simply no good argument for what we are doing in the area of federal spending in the current environment, yet the Democrats act as if they are doing something noble by agreeing to do things that will needlessly extend chronic unemployment even further into the future. Meanwhile, home evictions continue due to mortgage foreclosures, college is out of reach for growing numbers of young people, and on and on.
One of President Obama's worst me-too ideas, his deficit commission, continues to do damage even after its official demise. Democrats like Dick Durbin of Illinois signed onto its final report, even though he agreed that it was flawed, because he wanted to allow the report to frame the debate. Now, he goes on TV to announce the "we're out of money," which is simply fatuous. The commission's co-chairs -- who, we must remember, only have their current national profile because Obama handed it to them -- have now taken their self-important final report and turned it into a road show, the "Moment of Truth Project," which they launched earlier this month.
Meanwhile, three so-called moderate Democrats in the Senate recently announced that they had created an 18-member group, imaginatively called Moderate Dems, which will try to make deals with Republicans on budget cuts. The very idea to create such a group, of course, must be based on the belief that the existing Democratic party -- and President Obama -- are not moderate enough. Given the party's recent track record, that is a rather difficult argument to sustain.
The underlying radicalism of the me-too Democrats can be seen not just in the cruel and short-sighted cuts with which they oh-so-reluctantly are willing to agree. One of the founders of Moderate Dems, Colorado's Mark Udall, has announced that he will not vote to increase the national debt limit "unless the administration changes how it spends money." No matter what that vague statement really means, we now have a self-described moderate taking the bomb-throwing position that it is acceptable to threaten to default on government bonds in the name of forcing spending cuts. And it bears repeating: Spending should be going up right now, not down.
Udall also has announced his support for a balanced-budget amendment, requiring that the federal budget be balanced annually -- a target with no economic principle supporting it. The only exceptions would have to be passed by two-thirds majorities in both houses of Congress. (And we know how well super-majority requirements have served us lately.) This is the kind of insanity that we used to expect from only the most ill-informed panderers in Congress, not the self-styled voices of reason from the center.
There is always a temptation to compromise. People do not like to seem extreme, and one does not want the perfect to become the enemy of the good. The me-too Democrats, however, have become so focused on not being seen as liberal that they will not even allow the good to be the enemy of the bad. These Democrats are now moving toward playing games with the debt ceiling, and giving as few as 34 Senators the power to prevent the federal government from responding to future economic crises. I did not think that it was still possible to be surprised by how low things could go. Yet it keeps getting worse.