Fiscal Cliff

Bob Woodward on Fiscal Cliff: Pols Need to Kick Own Asses, Delegate Everything Else


Here's the Washington Post's venerable Bob Woodward, jabbering on about what went wrong with the fiscal cliff negotiations. Woodward starts his analysis by noting, not incorrectly that "the agreement on the "fiscal cliff" left the nation's major economic problems — its federal deficit and debt, high unemployment and low growth — on the negotiating-room floor."

Of course, it's as accurate to say that at least the past three-going-on-four years has been one big clusterfudge when it comes to any and all matters related to budgeting, especially all the years in which the Senate Democrats have not even been able to produce a budget plan for public view, much less passage in the world's greatest deliberative body.

But in any case, Woodward reminds us how the fiscal cliff was partly created by the threat of sequestration, which was itself the product of an earlier failed set of negotiations over the debt ceiling in 2011. The debt-ceiling deal in August 2011 begat a "supercommittee" of legislative all-stars that was about as inspiring as the sad, old Justice Society of America. I mean, come on, the supercommittee was far heavier on Dr. Mid-Nites and Liberty Belles than it was on the Supermans and Wonder Womans of the world.

The supercommittee was charged with finding $1.2 trillion in deficit cuts over 10 years. To guarantee its success, Congress and Obama agreed on $110 billion in mandatory spending cuts that would take effect Jan. 1, 2013, if the supercommittee failed — cuts so odious that the supercommittee would not allow itself to fail. Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and minority leader McConnell were fully on board with the plan. "The supercommittee is going to work," Boehner told me in an interview last year. "I've got Reid's and McConnell's commitments." It was a sure thing, they all agreed….

Let's pause to remind ourselves of just how "odious" it is to cut $110 billion from an annual budget that has been clocking in at somewhere north fo $3.5 trillion. The answer: not very odious at all as a matter of what Obama once called "arithmetic." Cutting $110 billion, including about $55 billion from defense spending, is a rounding error in a federal budget that has grown massively over the past dozen years.

Back to Woodward. He notes that high-level staffers of supercommittee members put together a bargain that would have forestalled sequestration but then overreached. Like Seinfeld's George Costanza, who once tragically tried to merge eating deli sandwiches with sex, this ragtag crew of dreamers flew too close the sun on wings of pastrami or something:

…five staffers struggled for a week. In my files is a one-page, typed document dated Oct. 23, 2011, showing that they essentially reached agreement. The Republicans had a total deficit reduction of $1.2 trillion and the Democrats had $1.24 trillion — a difference of $40 billion, not much.

Some staffers were ready to break out the champagne. They had a pipeline straight to the leadership in both parties. But the members of the supercommittee did not trust each other. Instead of adopting the staff agreement or a version of it, they decided to go big and craft a deficit-reduction package of up to $3 trillion. They were shooting for a "grand bargain."

The record shows they overreached: The mandatory cuts of $110 billion were not forestalled; the Biden-McConnell agreement has postponed them, but only for two months.

Woodward says the real problem was that staffers were never "empowered" by the leadership they represented to actually hash out a real deal and that they should have been. To him, high level meetings between Obama and Boehner or other muckety-mucks just create more grief than solutions. If you're wondering what the hell Woodward is talking about, it gets worse: He ends his vague article (hey, what was in the deficit reduction plan, Bob?) with a non sequitur about how Reagan reacted after hiking taxes up the ying-yang in 1982:

Reagan White House aides told me at the time how the president responded when asked how a renowned tax-cutter such as himself could approve a tax increase.

Darn, Reagan said, did we do that? He then pivoted and rather elegantly picked up one of his feet and kicked himself in the rear. Everyone laughed.

Both Democrats and Republicans need to circumvent the vulture politics of the day that demonizes the opposition. Obama and Boehner need to create a climate in which all involved can adopt the stylish accommodation of Ronald Reagan, pivot elegantly, kick themselves in the rear end and declare, Darn, did we do that?

Read the whole thing.

In sort-of documenting the dysfunction of a government that can't even trim chump change from its petty cash drawer, much less write and pass a goddamned budget, Woodward manages to also illustrate why press solons are pretty useless in this whole process too. Sequestration cuts aren't odious, except to congenital pants-wetters on both sides of the aisle (such as the neo-con defense hawks at the American Enterprise Institute and Leon Panetta, who can't abide a single dollar ever being cut from any military budget, even after the Second Coming of Christ and the beating of swords into non-voting GM shares). We've been racking up trillion-dollar annual deficits for years now, and the idea of cutting $3 trillion from future deficits over a 10-year period causes things to explode? That shouldn't be a reach under any circumstances, but especially under one in which both parties agree that we need to stop spending money we don't have on things we don't need. If the leadership of both parties couldn't agree to $3 trillion in deficit trims over a decade in which they expect to spend between $40 trillion and $47 trillion, they weren't going to agree to cuts of $1.2 trillion anyway. That's the the real story, and it's one that need to be retold every single day.

Woodward's invocation of today's "vulture politics" and his by-comparison invocation of the good old Reagan days is ridiculously ahistorical, especially coming from one of the guys who presided over the past 40-plus years of American history. Today's political situation isn't unique in its "demonization" of the opposition. Jesus Christ, George McGovern likened Nixon to Hitler and Reagan was attacked in similar terms. As was Clinton (by Jerry Falwell, who credited the Man from Hope with multiple murders in Arkansas). And then there was also the Bushitler stuff and novels and faux-documentaries about Dubya's assassination. Somehow, both sides somehow managed to pass budgets (as awful as they were). The fact that Boehner takes a lot of man-tan heat and Obama is called a socialist is light fare by comparison. What is different is the inability of our top men to freaking complete the most basic tasks required of them: to hash out what they government is going to spend each year according to basic and simple-to-understand legislative rule.

In the end, that is not something mystical or overly complicated or tough because they belong to different parties. It's the easiest thing in the world to get done and while of course "staffers" will do most of the grunt work, Boehner and Obama - and Harry Reid, the hugely incompetent Senate leader who is arguably the single-most responsbile villain in the whole dramedy, need to be running the show.

And when it comes to kicking their own asses, our triumvirate of leaders - Obama, Boehner, and Reid - should get in line behind the rest of us. In the end, we pay their tab, so we should be at the front of the line.