Who won? (Jason Reed/Reuters)
We've seen Boehner's spin
on the deal. Now let's take a closer look at the White House spin
, which was released later on. How do the two stack up?
Well, if you take them at face value, they're two entirely different deals. Great for our side! No, great for our side! Aside from a few common numbers, you might reasonably ask yourself if they're even describing the same thing: I think the answer lies in the expectations of both sides. All of this agreement is contingent upon each side following through with it: even the supposedly "mandatory" savings can be overridden just by later voting to, well, override them. Each side is making certain assumptions about what parts of the agreement will be enforceable, and how easy it will be to enforce them.
In terms of important differences in each side's spin: for starters, the White House says "programs for low-income families" are exempt from triggered cuts, which is a glimmer of good news in all of this Austeritymania. The White House strongly touts the steep cuts everywhere else as if they are a good thing in and of themselves: that's not different from Boehner, but is instead a full-throated acceptance that austerity during an economic downturn is somehow a Good Thing, when all evidence points to it being a terrible thing.
The White House especially emphasizes the defense cuts: about $35 billion a year for 10 years, which is something that's been grating on the GOP, but doesn't sound like it's a showstopper for them so far. Also grating on the GOP, and unmentioned in the Boehner talking points: preservation of Pell Grants. That will raise the ire of his more ardent teabaggers, who for some reason consider Pell Grants to be the work of the devil.
By far the biggest difference in the two plan outlines, however, is that Boehner says the deal will be "effectively making it impossible" for tax increases to occur; the White House disagrees, saying "the Committee Will Consider Responsible Entitlement and Tax Reform. This means putting all the priorities of both parties on the table – including both entitlement reform and revenue-raising tax reform."
Proposing tax reform and getting it are two different things, especially when we're talking about appointing a 6-6 bipartisan committee in which Republicans effectively hold veto power: they can simply not agree to tax increases, shutting down negotiations, and that's that. That would be precisely what they have been doing this entire time, for example, and quite successfully.
The White House, however, believes that the Republicans won't walk away from the table when Democrats propose new tax revenues (via reforms on the rich, we'll presume) because the alternative would be the "trigger," in which we ostensibly automatically cut $500 billion from future defense budgets (and an equal amount from domestic programs) if the committee cannot reach an agreement that the House and Senate can agree too:
Sequester Would Provide a Strong Incentive for Both Sides to Come to the Table: If the fiscal committee took no action, the deal would automatically add nearly $500 billion in defense cuts on top of cuts already made, and, at the same time, it would cut critical programs like infrastructure or education. That outcome would be unacceptable to many Republicans and Democrats alike – creating pressure for a bipartisan agreement without requiring the threat of a default with unthinkable consequences for our economy.
This presumes, however, that the same House and Senate Republicans who insist on not increasing taxes on the rich, on pain of breaking their very solemn tea party pledge, would suddenly reverse that stance if defense were also on the line. Is that assured? Is it really true that all Boehner would have to do, to get his troops in line and have them vote for an actual, bona fide tax increase, is to tell them that otherwise defense gets cut?
I don't think that's as simple as the White House argues it to be—by a longshot, in fact. All that is required to demand both no new taxes and that defense cuts not be made is, well, to simply pass something saying that those defense cuts won't be made. The House can do it easily, which leaves the Senate Democrats as having to choose between "increasing taxes!" or "hurting the troops!"—Democrats are on the defensive on both sides of the equation. They get full blame for any tax increases, and they also get full blame for "endangering our national security" by not giving in to Republican demands. Remember, that's a well-worn argument used in nearly every presidential election. The Democrats are weak on national security! they say, or military readiness is being placed at an all-time low by these draconian cuts that Democrats, and only Democrats, are insisting on!
How do we think that's going to play out? Let's say the House passes a bill next month saying, "Oh by the way, defense cuts are exempt from the trigger"? What happens? What happens if the usual Senate Democrats go along with it, and send it to the president, and Obama is presented, for signature or veto, something named the "Protecting American Freedom Act" or some such thing?
I'll tell you what happens: the GOP has its new we-love-America slogan for the elections, and President Obama, by supporting the defense cuts against their budget-busting carve-out, gets painted as a Muslimish not-caring-about-defense guy. Ditto for every single last Democratic candidate. If I can easily think of how the GOP will game this system, I think it's fairly obvious the GOP can think up the same things.
Supposing that exempting defense by fiat doesn't happen, the other bit of leverage heralded by the White House as mechanism for achieving more balanced tax revenues is the Bush tax cuts. According to the White House, the expiration of the Bush tax cuts on Jan. 1, 2013 (the same date as the "trigger" for automatic spending cuts) acts to "force" the balanced revenue-to-cuts approach that they couldn't get this time around:
The Enforcement Mechanism Complements the Forcing Event Already In Law – the Expiration of the Bush Tax Cuts – To Create Pressure for a Balanced Deal: The Bush tax cuts expire as of 1/1/2013, the same date that the spending sequester would go into effect. These two events together will force balanced deficit reduction. Absent a balanced deal, it would enable the President to use his veto pen to ensure nearly $1 trillion in additional deficit reduction by not extending the high-income tax cuts.
A minor point here is that the Bush tax cuts were already supposed to end no matter what: that was the promise during the last one of these hostage-taking sessions, in which the Bush tax cuts were extended past their expiration. Now, apparently, their possible permanence has been been revived, yet again, to be used as bargaining chip, yet again.
But the larger point is that the White House believes that Democrats can "force" the Republican side to accept revenue increases, by simply threatening the Bush tax cuts with expiration if it doesn't happen. Well then, why didn't that happen the first time? What argument or hostage will the Republicans not have next time that they did have previously, in order to secure an extension of the tax cuts for wealthy Americans the first time around?
It again presumes that the Republicans can't find a hostage that the Democrats aren't willing to let them shoot. Yes, Obama can simply veto any attempts to extend the Bush tax cuts: but do we think the Republicans won't have a ready answer for that? What happens if the "Super Congress" comes back with tax reforms that severely impact the poor, but not the rich? What happens if the "Super Congress" merely votes to make the Bush tax cuts permanent, or lard things up with even more tax pork for the wealthy? Forget both of those: let's suppose the most likely outcome, which is that Democrats on the committee stand firm on not allowing either of those things, and let's suppose Republicans stand firm on requiring them, leading to committee stalemate and "triggering" the enforced cuts: are we saying that at that point, Republicans will stop taking hostages in order to regain those tax cuts, and the Democrats will be in the advantageous position? Why?
The problem with this deal is the same problem with all of the White House "compromises" during this administration. They accept ridiculous Republican demands on the theory that next time around, they'll be in a better position to fight them. Then, when the next time rolls around, they agree to Republican demands again, still saying that next time will present them with a better opportunity. Now we're basing the entire White House assertion of a "bipartisan" deal on the mere say-so that during the next round of negotiations, we've figured out a way for Democrats to stand firm.
Really? No: really?
I'm going to say something rather remarkable here, which is that if I had to choose which talking points were a more credible description of the outcome of these talks, Boehner's or the White House's, it would be a much tougher choice than it should be. In recent history, what Boehner has said would happen, no matter how ridiculous or damaging, has been much closer to what actually ended up happening as an outcome. This White House, however, has had at this point a rather pockmarked history of declaring certain things were non-negotiable, only to quickly negotiate them away again. When the White House says it's going to stand firm in 2013, and that therefore this "deal" makes good sense, it lacks credibility.
The White House is basing this entire deal, and agreeing to nearly all of the demands made by the farthest-right conservatives, on the premise that they will stand firm next time on the exact same economic and political points that they were not able to stand firm on this time: it basically renders this whole exercise into a judgement call as to whether you think next time is the charm, when it comes to Democrats having the courage to stand up against difficult, hostage-laden Republican demands.
There is nothing in the last few years that would suggest that to be the case.