Scot Lehigh

Partisanship over compromise

By Scot Lehigh
Globe Columnist / July 13, 2011

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WASHINGTON REPUBLICANS have just made an unmistakable declaration about their priorities: Preventing tax increases is more important than reducing the deficit - even with a federal default looming on the near horizon.

We can now discount GOP rhetoric about acting like adults, about not kicking the can down the road, about making tough decisions today to spare our kids from more debt tomorrow.

Sadly, Republican leaders have revealed the emptiness of that lofty talk. They are either unwilling or unable to strike a broad bipartisan compromise on the long-term deficit. House Speaker John Boehner, who had repeatedly urged the president to do a big deficit deal, has just walked away from a possible package that reportedly would have done 75 to 80 percent of the deficit reduction on the spending side. Why? Because of a backlash from rigid right-wingers who rule out any revenue increases.

Boehner’s retreat has left the GOP insisting that the only acceptable deficit deal is one that attacks our long-term fiscal problems entirely through spending cuts. Contemplate the arrogance of that. Republicans control one branch of government, the House. President Obama, whose party holds both the presidency and the Senate, says he’s willing to embrace significant long-term spending cuts if the GOP will agree to some new revenues. But though revenue increases would be only 20 to 25 percent of deficit reduction, Republicans have said no.

“Here is what’s amazing to me: The Republicans are in a position where they could have an extremely favorable deal, and they won’t take yes for an answer,’’ says Bob Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan deficit watchdog. Bixby is rightly amazed. What reasonable political leader - for that matter, what rational adult - faced with the chance of leveraging a one-third share of power into a package constructed largely according to their wishes, walks away from the prospective deal?

But that’s what the GOP has now done. Still, give Boehner credit for at least trying to play an adult role. Not so Eric Cantor, the House majority leader. First he bailed on the deficit talks with Vice President Joe Biden, saying the president and the speaker needed to forge the agreement. Then he undermined the grand bargain Obama and Boehner were contemplating by making it clear he wouldn’t support any new revenues.

Like Cantor, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has also chosen partisanship over compromise, though he’s more adept at cloaking that partisan obstinacy in folksy palaver. As with Cantor, one of McConnell’s favorite ploys is to assert that Obama wants to raise taxes during a recession. Actually, as the president stressed on Monday, he isn’t talking about new revenue until 2013. McConnell, of course, would also oppose any new revenue when recovery comes.

To backstop their anti-revenue stances, both Cantor and McConnell insist the deficit is a spending problem. But though spending commitments constitute a large part of the long-term deficit, fiscal experts say tax cuts have also played a significant role. And thus that more revenue should be part of the solution.

“All you need to know is that revenue is now 15 percent of GDP,’’ says Alan Simpson, former assistant Republican leader in the Senate and co-chairman of the recent bipartisan deficit commission. “That is the lowest since the Korean War. The historical figure has been 19 to 20 percent. If we can’t even move half an inch, people should be shrieking.’’

Instead, the prospect of any new revenue has the GOP shrieking.

This week, Obama declared himself willing to take heat from Democrats on spending cuts and called on Republican leaders to show the same fortitude on new revenue. His Monday press conference was a start, but with time ticking toward a federal default that could carry dire economic consequences, the president must press his case more vigorously.

He needs to break out the charts and graphs and explain to the American public, in prime time, the real roots of the long-term deficit, the impact on Medicare and Medicaid of a cuts-only approach, and the consequences of default.

That’s a battle he can win - but to win it, he needs to wage it more forcefully.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at