Deficit Hawks to Press Case in 2012, Hope for Voters' Attention

Published Dec 2, 2011. By Nancy Cook. In National Journal.

The “go big” proponents just won’t quit.

Deficit hawks who gained prominence and some influence through this year’s debt-limit and super-committee negotiations will lobby a deadlocked Congress in 2012 to enact massive spending cuts and tax reform in the months before lawmakers face voters in November. They are sure to fail, but the pressure could keep the public focused on the country’s fiscal illness and force candidates to make big deficit reduction a central plank of their campaigns.

“There are frightening reminders of the need for deficit reduction from Europe,” says Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. “You can’t put this level of interest back in the bottle.”

MacGuineas’ plans, and those of the other go-big proponents, remain vague. They want Congress to find $3 trillion to $4 trillion in savings in the federal budget, a task that would require cutting spending, raising taxes, and reforming social programs, such as Medicare and Medicaid. And, they’re looking to a bevy of past plans and former deficit-reduction coalitions for suggestions.

The Gang of Six, for instance, met a handful of times this week, just as members from Rivlin-Domenici and Simpson-Bowles gathered regularly this fall to keep their proposals alive and workable.

The only missing piece to the “Go Big” push now is a firm lobbying strategy for the next year, one that MacGuineas and various members spent this week developing behind closed doors.

Yet, with a divided Congress, even an optimist would say the chances of going big for the next year seem slim. “I like to be optimistic, but I’m not totally crazy,” says Robert Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, and one of the original pushers of the big strategy.

The go-big idea came to prominence this fall in a perfect storm involving the formation of the super committee, MacGuineas’ deep connections in Washington, and the public’s growing interest in what years before seemed like an impossibly wonky topic, the federal budget.

The group kicked off its campaign in earnest on Sept. 21 with a series of panels, held one afternoon in a hearing room in the Dirksen Senate Office Building. Before the speakers began, the lights dimmed. The audience turned its attention to two flat-screen televisions, projecting black-and-white videos set to dramatic piano music of various recognizable Washington insiders bemoaning the mounting federal deficit, from the former chairwoman of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, Christina Romer, to New York Times op-ed columnist David Brooks and Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md.

“I think there’s no substitute for a go-big approach,” former CBO Director Douglas Holtz-Eakin said in the video, staring directly at the camera.

The go-big campaign continued throughout the fall with a jazzed-up website, a savvy Twitter feed, and e-mail newsletters that went out several times a week to subscribers --messaging that most likely will continue through 2012, regardless of its reception.

One hundred House members and 45 senators signed a letter, sent out on the letterhead of the Center for a Responsible Federal Budget, urging the super committee to find a big deal, just four days before the 12 members announced failure.

It also helped that MacGuineas became something of a Hill darling herself, testifying at several budget hearings over the fall and co-hosting a private dinner, along with Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., for more than 50 deficit-reduction aficionados. MacGuineas also developed a formidable staff roster. One of the committee’s senior advisers worked for Hoyer for three years, while another policy adviser took time out from his duties to work staff jobs on both the super committee and the Simpson-Bowles commission – connections that will certainly help the group maintain its bipartisan ties over the next year.

Still, political scientists say success for the group might not be measured by the lobbying effort’s ability to yield a concrete deal. Instead, success could mean maintaining the debate’s momentum throughout 2012 to elicit campaign promises of deficit reduction from the presidential candidates.

“There are so many players now in the budget game outside of Congress,” says Steven Smith, a professor of political science at Washington University in St. Louis. Part of the motivation for keeping the go-big campaign robust, Smith says, is a drive on the part of the advocacy group to make sure it remains relevant.

Going big is also an easy slogan for politicians from both sides of the political aisle to support. “They’re saying, ‘We should do big things and be really serious and responsible.’ It does not say anything about what has to be done. You get all of the benefits and none of the cost,” says UCLA political scientist Barbara Sinclair.

And that might be where it ends. MacGuineas would like to see the White House and congressional leadership actively pushing for serious deficit reduction in 2012, but that seems unlikely. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., dismissed the idea this week as “happy talk.”

“I say put it in bill form and have it scored, bring it to me, and I’ll take a look at it,” Reid told reporters on Tuesday when asked about the Gang of Six’s plan to revive its proposal.

So, what will it take for the go-big idea to gain traction politically, apart from being an example of effective, repeated political messaging?

In 2013, serious deficit reduction might require single-party control of the White House and Congress. Supporters could hope to expand support among members who come from moderate districts, says Sarah Binder, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Or, one political party could decide it is in its best interest to compromise.

But, even under the unlikely post-election scenario of a Republican- or Democrat-controlled Congress, it would still be difficult to get the 60 votes needed in the Senate to advance a big package.

Instead, Binder cautions, lawmakers might not move until a crisis is upon them, and that crisis would have to be more immediate and critical than anything witnessed in 2011.

"I'm really hard-pressed to see a single party produce a package that would produce this kind of pain," Binder says. "There's going to be a deal when the consequences of deadlock become sufficiently harmful." She added: "The consequences have to be made much more dire to get one side to fold or compromise."