Tuesday, July 5, 2011

David Brooks and the Problem With "Normal Parties"

David Brooks's column in today's Times begins by praising congressional Republicans for moving fiscal reforms onto the national agenda and for using the debt ceiling to extract substantial concessions from Democrats to reduce the deficit with sizeable spending cuts against modest increases in taxes (derived mostly from ending tax credits and eliminating "loopholes" rather than adjusting tax rates themselves upwards.
The Republicans have changed American politics since they took control of the House of Representatives. They have put spending restraint and debt reduction at the top of the national agenda. They have sparked a discussion on entitlement reform. They have turned a bill to raise the debt limit into an opportunity to put the U.S. on a stable fiscal course.

Republican leaders have also proved to be effective negotiators. They have been tough and inflexible and forced the Democrats to come to them. The Democrats have agreed to tie budget cuts to the debt ceiling bill. They have agreed not to raise tax rates. They have agreed to a roughly 3-to-1 rate of spending cuts to revenue increases, an astonishing concession.

Moreover, many important Democrats are open to a truly large budget deal. President Obama has a strong incentive to reach a deal so he can campaign in 2012 as a moderate. The Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, has talked about supporting a debt reduction measure of $3 trillion or even $4 trillion if the Republicans meet him part way. There are Democrats in the White House and elsewhere who would be willing to accept Medicare cuts if the Republicans would be willing to increase revenues.
Then, he rakes the same Republicans over the coals for not having yet agreed to a debt ceiling deal.
If the Republican Party were a normal party, it would take advantage of this amazing moment. It is being offered the deal of the century: trillions of dollars in spending cuts in exchange for a few hundred million dollars of revenue increases.

A normal Republican Party would seize the opportunity to put a long-term limit on the growth of government. It would seize the opportunity to put the country on a sound fiscal footing. It would seize the opportunity to do these things without putting any real crimp in economic growth.
The party is not being asked to raise marginal tax rates in a way that might pervert incentives. On the contrary, Republicans are merely being asked to close loopholes and eliminate tax expenditures that are themselves distortionary.

This, as I say, is the mother of all no-brainers.

But we can have no confidence that the Republicans will seize this opportunity. That’s because the Republican Party may no longer be a normal party. Over the past few years, it has been infected by a faction that is more of a psychological protest than a practical, governing alternative.
Here's the thing, though: the stuff Brooks loves about the current Republican Party---its willingness to tread in the dangerous waters of entitlement reform and balancing the budge, its tough and productive negotiations with the president and democratic leaders, and the progress it has catalyzed on the most intractable problems  in the American political economy---are motivated by the same things that Brooks hates about the current Republican Party---its willingness to risk default on the national debt in order to eek out every possible concession in deficit reduction negotiations with the president even in the presence of a very good deal on the table.

Both come from the Republican's tea Party-motivated inflexibility on moving toward a balanced budget without raising taxes. Republicans have gotten traction on overall federal spending and on entitlement reform precisely because they have lashed themselves to this particular mast. If they did not have an actual, firm bottom line, the President and Democratic never would have given up so much already.

In fact, all the good things that have come from the current Republican majority in the House of Representatives---all of the accomplishments that Brooks' praises---have come from the Republican Party giving up being a "normal party." A "normal party" doesn't propose a plan for entitlement reform and spending cuts to popular programs in order to restore fiscal balance. A "normal party" doesn't threaten to shut down the government over cuts to a continuing resolution. A "normal party" would rather sit idly by, accumulating debt at a record pace without actually proposing a budget for the last or coming fiscal year let alone a long-term strategy for balancing the budget.

"Normal party" politics created the budget problem. Democrats (and many Republicans) love to spend money on new programs without raising taxes to pay for them. Republicans (and many Democrats) love cutting taxes without reducing spending to preserve fiscal balance. Balancing the budget will require something other than "normal party" politics.

David Brooks wants the Republican Party to make extraordinary progress through the normal channels. He wants fiscal reforms without brinkmanship or uncertainty. He wants smart people with calculators to go into a room with plenty of pens and legal pads and to come out, twelve hours later with their neckties loosened and their sleeves rolled up, and announce a reasonable and rational path to balancing the budget and repaying the national debt the republicans and democrats can all get behind because of its self-evident worthiness and sensibility. Those things are fine enough to want, I supposed, but it is childish and unreasonable to expect them.

I expect Republicans in Congress will wait until the last minute and make the best deal they can---just like they did on the AMT fix and the continuing resolution. The economic costs for the country and the political costs for the Republican Party are too high to do otherwise. Yet, their willingness to wait until the last minute and to seriously consider going beyond that are the things that motivate the entire bargain in the first place.

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