Who has a deficit reduction plan?

Matthew Yglesias (in a Slate blog post) and Jonathan Chait (at http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2013/02/david-brooks-obama-plan-birther.html) had mutually supportive pieces yesterday deriding claims that both parties are equally to blame for lack of progress on deficit reduction.

A particularly silly accusation is that Obama has proposed no deficit reduction plan, despite the fact that he has, quite publicly. You can read a summary here (PDF) on the White House website.

Yglesias’s summary of Obama’s plan is brief and clear:

Here is Barack Obama’s deficit reduction plan. It does indeed propose $580 billion in additional tax revenue from the rich. It also proposes $130 billion in cuts to Social Security via the adoption of chained CPI. It proposes cutting domestic discretionary spending by $100 billion. It proposes cutting non-military discretionary spending by $100 billion. It proposes $400 billion in provider payment cuts to government health care programs. It proposes $30 billion in cuts to farm subsidies, and has $100 billion worth of extra ideas for cutting non-health non-Social Security mandatory spending. The CPI change would also amount to a broad-based tax increase that would raise an extra $100 billion, and the plan would result in an additional $200 billion in reduced interest expenses.

You can say a lot of things about this plan, but you cannot say that it doesn’t exist or that it consists entirely of of proposals to increase taxes on the rich.

Those who deny that Obama has proposed a plan object that what’s on offer doesn’t minutely detail individual line items, which is true (if obviously misleading). But no such finely detailed budget is currently on the table from the Republicans either.

Yes, a while back the GOP-controlled House passed Paul Ryan’s budget. It’s no longer an active bill, and it seems widely acknowledged that it probably could not pass the current House, despite its still being majority Republican. But it might still be considered a detailed deficit-reduction proposal but for one thing: It does next to nothing to reduce the deficit. It does contain deep spending cuts, but they’re offset by massive additional tax breaks to the rich. Even Representative Ryan acknowledged that it would not balance the budget for a quarter century, and then only assuming an implausible sustained economic boom. In contrast, the budget proposal from the last Congress’s Progressive Caucus would eliminate the deficit in just 10 years with no strained economic assumptions.)

Yesterday New York Times columnist David Brooks, a moderate conservative who is normally more sensible, wrote that Obama had nothing to offer on deficit reduction aside from higher taxes on the rich, which is the proximate cause of the reactions from Yglesias and Chait mentioned above (and they were hardly alone). To Brooks’s credit, he quickly corrected himself in an on-line postscript to his column, even acknowledging, “I should have acknowledged the balanced and tough-minded elements in the president’s approach.” I should also note that Brooks continues to criticize congressional Republicans for their partisan extremism.

Another reaction to Brooks came from blogger Steve Benen, who pointed out that Obama’s compromise position is not very different from what Brooks himself advocates:

As I argued yesterday, it’s hard to ignore the extent to which the president has played by the rules Brooks likes — the president tried to stop congressional Republicans from crashing the economy on purpose; he accepted deep spending cuts; he adopted over $2.4 trillion in debt reduction even when economists said debt reduction shouldn’t be at the top of the economic to-do list; he accepted far less tax revenue than his campaign platform sought; he put entitlement “reforms” on the table; he offered “grand bargains”; and with brutal sequestration cuts looming, he endorsed a 50-50 compromise that required concessions from both sides, all while leaving the door open to additional negotiations. That is, quite literally, everything that could reasonably be expected of an elected president.

Finally, if you can stand to read any more about this, you might want to read this friendly conversation between Brooks and The Washington Post‘s Ezra Klein. At one point Brooks suggests Obama should emulate Clinton’s centrist Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, and Klein reminds him that Obama’s proposals are actually more conservative than Rubin’s preferred approach.

As I often like to remind people, the last two presidents to preside over a balanced budget were Democrats, specifically Bill Clinton and Lyndon Johnson, and the latter at the height of the War in Vietnam, the War on Poverty, and the Apollo program.

For more on the origins of the current large (but already shrinking) deficits, see this earlier post.

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