A rare display of bipartisan fiscal cooperation broke out on Capitol Hill last week when 38 House members (22 Democrats and 16 Republicans) braved an onslaught of interest group pressure to vote in favor of a budget resolution designed to rein in the deficit through a combination of spending cuts and tax increases. The budget plan, offered by Representatives Jim Cooper (D-TN) and Steven LaTourette (R-OH) as an amendment to the House budget resolution, was based on the recommendations of the Simpson-Bowles fiscal commission. It came 15 months after a bipartisan majority of that commission put forth a credible and comprehensive plan to address the deficit and was the first budget plan based on the commission’s work to come up for a vote in the House or Senate.
While the nays on the Cooper-LaTourette amendment outnumbered the yeas by 10 to 1, the very existence of a bipartisan budget alternative signaled an important breakthrough. It demonstrated growing frustration with the starkly partisan plans that members are routinely pressured to choose from and established a framework upon which future bipartisan efforts can be built.
There is little doubt that future efforts will be needed.
Legislation will have to be enacted by the end of the year unless Congress and the President want to allow all expiring tax cuts to expire on schedule and to let a planned $1.2 trillion spending sequester go into effect as written. While these things would improve the deficit outlook, allowing them all to happen at once is no one’s idea of the most rational approach to deficit reduction. The statutory debt limit will also be reached again sometime late this year or early next year, bringing with it the prospect of another self-imposed “debt crisis” in the absence of a new agreement on steps to raise it.
Moreover, the budget is on an unsustainable track over the long term. So even if Congress and the President find a temporary fix to our immediate problems it will not be sufficient. Solving either the short-term or long-term problem will require compromise between Republicans and Democrats. Neither party has the votes or the public credibility to jam through its own agenda. And a budget plan that can’t be enacted is nothing more than a political wish list.
Thus, despite last week’s lopsided vote, the viability of a bipartisan plan similar to the approach taken by Cooper and LaTourette may improve as we get closer to the action-forcing events at the end of the year.
In the meantime, it is important to recognize that this vote demonstrated political courage. In today’s highly partisan environment, it is not easy to buck party leaders by reaching across the aisle, particularly on an issue both parties hope to use to their advantage in campaign rhetoric. Some of the political difficulty was on display Wednesday night, as a variety of powerful organizations and special interests mounted a furious last-minute lobbying campaign against the Cooper-LaTourette resolution.
The 38 members who supported Cooper-LaTourette deserve high praise and encouragement from their constituents for putting broad national interests ahead of party politics. Democrats voted for significant cuts in domestic spending. Republicans voted for tax increases and significant cuts in defense. All 38 understood that compromise was essential. That is why the Cooper-LaTourette amendment was the only one to receive any bipartisan support. It’s also why the debt-to-GDP ratio by 2022 under Cooper-LaTourette (67.9) fell between the Republican plan which was eventually adopted (62.3) and the Democratic alternative (74.2).
Although these lawmakers knew the House would eventually approve a more one-sided plan on a party-line vote, they stood up for an alternative that called for bipartisan cooperation and difficult choices with everything on the table. Because the fiscal gap is so large, that’s the only way we are going to be able to enact a sustainable solution.
During the brief House floor debate on the amendment, objections were raised to the timing (too soon, they said) and to some of the specifics. Not surprisingly, Republicans complained that it didn’t cut enough spending and raised taxes by too much. Democrats expressed concerns that the spending cuts were too deep and the tax increases were too little. This is a good debate to have but it can only be fully and honestly engaged in the context of a budget resolution that recognizes in advance that no one is going to get everything they want.
It was encouraging that many House members who voted against the Cooper-LaTourette alternative indicated an interest in eventually moving in the direction laid out by the Simpson-Bowles commission.
In addition, the bipartisan “Gang of Six” has worked hard to push the Simpson-Bowles approach in the Senate, where dozens of their colleagues have offered their encouragement and support.
Something must be done this year. Ideally, it should be something that follows the comprehensive, bipartisan Simpson-Bowles approach. That makes this a good time for concerned citizens to applaud the elected officials who bravely voted for that approach in the House, and to encourage others in Congress to follow their example.
The House vote: