|Budget’s Sessions is Right to Want Budget Sessions|
By Quin Hillyer
Wednesday, December 19 2012
One reason the substance of the “Fiscal Cliff” negotiations has been so unsatisfactory is that the very format of the negotiations has been misguided. The Obama-Boehner talks favor the White House and disfavor the twin values of transparency and public understanding. As is usually the case, bad process is likely to produce bad policies.
Alabama’s Jeff Sessions, the ranking Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, has been arguing for months that “regular order” should prevail in developing the budget, with public hearings in Congress rather than, or at least in addition to, the closed-door discussions between the President and the Speaker of the House. Again and again on/in cable shows, talk radio, guest newspaper columns and the Senate floor, Sessions has provided a consistent and lonely, but eminently sensible, voice on the whole situation.
As he argued in a December 12 column in The Wall Street Journal:
Proposals should be worked up in committee, where senators appointed by their colleagues have developed expertise in the issues that come before them. Amendments should be offered as part of an open process to modify and perfect legislation. The debate should be brought to the Senate floor.
Instead of an open process that actually airs out details and allows numerous viewpoints to be heard, the public suffers through dueling press conferences featuring the same, lame talking points. Because there are no voices in the middle – no gradations of viewpoints and principles aired out – it becomes harder for constructive compromise even to become conceivable, much less be achieved.
“I really think the classical understanding of the way Congress should operate is being undermined,” Sessions said on CNN on Dec. 13, in decrying “this trap… of secret negotiations.”
Why would an open process work better? Because it already is known that some Democrats differ strongly from the White House on several issues – and in ways Republicans would approve – while some Republicans, such as Paul Ryan, have shown an ability to find common cause with Democrats (Ron Wyden, Alice Rivlin) without abandoning essential principles.
For example, Louisiana’s Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu has spoken out in favor of significantly lower estate taxes than Obama wants. And a whopping 18 Democrats have asked at least for a delay in the ObamaCare medical device tax. Some of them want the tax repealed entirely.
When determined senators like Landrieu, a bulldog negotiator, demand satisfaction on discrete budgetary sub-issues, while having free reign for the horse-trading endemic to the legislative process, they often can craft deals and larger consensus unachievable in bilateral talks where each side draws proverbial lines in the sand.
Meanwhile, an open process allows different voices to be heard, pushing different arguments that might better convince or engage public constituencies than Obama’s or Boehner’s monotonous litany have been able to do. Because different listeners’ internal logic works in different ways, even the most finely wrought explanation in Boehner’s words, in Boehner’s style, might fail to “move the needle” of public opinion in the same way Ryan or Sessions or Landrieu might.
My favorite argument, for example, has remained untried: Use Bill Clinton as a model. Ask rhetorically if anybody thinks Clinton is a heartless Scrooge. Of course not. Make the simple point that if Obama wants Clinton-era tax rates, he should be okay with levels of spending as low as Clinton approved, or at least somewhere closer to Clinton than now exist.
Take Clinton’s last full year in office, 2000. Non-defense discretionary spending (otherwise known as annual domestic Appropriations) that year was $283.6 billion. Adjusted for inflation into 2012 dollars, that would be $380.9 billion. To be really generous and also adjust for 11.9 percent population growth, we should be at $426.3 billion for non-security, non-entitlement, federal-government spending. Instead, this year, that spending level is $525.7 billion. Apples to apples, we’re overspending Clinton by $99.4 billion! And without those somewhat debatable adjustments, we’re overspending Clinton by $242.1 billion.
Surely, then, now that the financial crisis is four years in the rearview mirror, we can cut at least a quarter of that difference between Clinton’s spending and Obama’s. That $25 million annually would mean a $250 billion savings over ten years, before even touching taxes, defense, ObamaCare, Medicaid, Medicare, welfare or Social Security.
Yet arguments like these get lost in the shuffle when Obama and Boehner stick to their own favorite talking points. The public remains ill-informed, and the “cliff” looms ever more ominously.
Obviously, by now time might be too short for the full hearings Sessions advocates. But his principle is correct. Solution: Pass a bill putting off the entire cliff for one month, and use the month for a dual track of open hearings along with continued Obama-Boehner talks. It’s better to get this right than to avoid a cliff-fall only via a deal that destabilizes the entire, long-term economic terrain.
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