Gang of Six comes to the table with a plan, and some hope

A plan, a plan!  We have a plan, we just aren’t telling you what it is, not just yet.

And just because you and I don’t know what’s in it doesn’t mean that this budget plan from the Group of Six might not be a solid foundation for building a way to get the nation’s budget out of the ditch, and maybe get support for a debt ceiling increase before the government defaults on its loans in two weeks.

Today, a bipartisan group (or Gang) of six senators that has been meeting privately for months looking for a way out of the federal budget quicksand briefed Senate colleagues on a plan to cut about $4 trillion dollars from the budget deficit over the next 10 years.  The plan is said to be similar to the one presented by the president’s deficit study commission, and calls for spending cuts and tax increases (yeah, I said it—tax increases).  A number of Republicans and Democrats came out of the meeting with positive things to say about this effort.

President Obama praised the plan, noting that it’s “consistent” with the approach he’s been pushing in recent negotiations.  Now, that may be all it takes to doom the plan in the eyes of Obama-haters, but there’s still hope.  This plan will be there waiting for both houses to pick up after the GOP’s “Cut, Cap and Balance” plan fails to win approval; it wouldn’t be ready to be implemented right away, but could show enough good faith for enough Republicans to do what has to be done right away—raise the debt ceiling by August 2 to prevent government default and all the consequences that will bring to the economy, and to you and me.

Just for good measure, on that proposal for a balanced budget amendment: Dahlia Lithwick and Doug Kendall make an interesting case that amending the Constitution to require a balanced budget, in the way that Tea Party members are proposing to do, would actually “crash headlong into the very constitutional principles the Tea Party purports to cherish” and that if successful could hamstring the nation’s ability to defend itself.  Here’s hoping they’re still capable of seeing the irony of this situation.

This medicine will not taste like candy

The elections are over; now comes our chance to see if the big talkers can walk the walk when it comes to putting the national budget on a sustainable path for the future.  The bipartisan commission on deficit reduction is due with its recommendations by the first of the month, and the crackling of the first embers of what should be a firestorm of debate are already being heard.

Good, because a real debate is what we need; not a standoff in which the major parties hurt lethal talking points at each other, but a real adult conversation about what our options are and which road we’d rather go down.  This plan will serve as a starting point for that discussion and some painful decisions…not surprisingly, many of the people who just won the responsibility to make these decisions are already crawfishing back from the brink.

Raise the age to get Social Security?  Trim benefits?  Cut the home mortgage interest deduction for income taxes?   Pentagon cutbacks?   Higher gasoline taxes?  Everything has to be on the table or we get nowhere; if this was easy, it would have already been done.

Our friends in Great Britain have the same problem, and the new government has come up with plan to reduce their deficit.  This should provide a vivid lesson for U.S. lawmakers in how to implement a drastic but absolutely necessary program.  I fear, however, we’re much more likely to see this:

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The more things change, the more they stay eerily the same

First of all, don’t believe most of what’s coming out of the mouths of the political pros today, either the candidates or the party officials and consultants, including the ones disguised as Fox News commentators.  The winners of yesterday’s elections are saying every result is due to people rejecting President Obama and big government, while the losers are trying to convince us that they’re not to blame; nothing is that simple.  But make no mistake: the Democrats were beaten up yesterday.  Why?

For starters, the party in power always loses seats in the midterm elections.  Plus, Americans are (generally) not ideological, they’re practical—they want the economy strong and unemployment down, and they are impatient so they voted for someone new.  They didn’t, by and large, vote for mouthy extremists with no realistic plan for solving problems.  It was the independent voters, who supported Democrats in 2008, who drove the results of this election.  And if this election showed the biggest party swing in some 70 years, maybe it was because we’re trying to recover from the worst economic crisis in some 70 years.

The irony?  Unemployment is unacceptably high, but the naysayers aren’t giving the administration any credit for what it did do that, arguably, saved the economy.  But those things didn’t bring back jobs fast enough, and that was all the excuse many needed.

Don’t put too much stock in this big change being permanent.  Just two years ago there was supreme confidence that the Republican Party had one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel, and that was less than a decade after the Democrats were routed and ostracized following the Clinton presidency, which came after a generation of Republican ascendancy while Democrats wandered in the desert.

Republicans now control the House and should be expected to make an effort to lead, rather than just get in the way as they’ve done the past two years.  Some wise Republicans have said as much today, that the people have given them a “second” chance (this presumes the world began with the election of Ronald Reagan).  Well, the thing Speaker of the House-presumptive John Boehner has touted is the Pledge to America, and I’ve read estimates that achieving that vague set of goals will add $700 billion to the debt.

So don’t be surprised if there’s not much change in Washington.  Promises to lower taxes are vacuous: government can’t afford to take a pay cut any more than you or me, not if it plans to keep programs people want, like Social Security, Medicare, and national defense.  Cutting anything else won’t have the kind of impact on long-term debt that will make a serious difference.  Besides, when it comes to a plan to help the economy recover and generate jobs, what’s your level of confidence that the party largely responsible for the circumstances that led to the economic crisis is the party that can make it all better?

Look for real changes at the state or local level, where enough small changes can add up to real power for Republicans.

One more thing: enough with all the balloon juice about “taking back” the government, unless you’re talking about taking it back from the deep-pocketed interests who’ve been controlling the people in office for years and years now.  On paper, the government is still and always has been in the hands of the people we citizens chose to look out for our interests, just as the Constitution envisioned.  On the ground…well, we all have to understand that the longer those people stay in government—like Boehner, just elected to his 11th two-year term?—the more they depend on the money that greases Washington’s wheels; it’s true for Democrats and Republicans, and they know it, too.

The older I’ve gotten the easier it’s become to keep these things in perspective: if you don’t like the results of this election, remember that there’ll be another one along soon enough.