Super Committee: Deal Or No Deal

by Michael Sean Winters

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A front page, above the fold article in this morning’s Washington Post details the looming showdown over a deficit reduction package as the deadline for the “super committee” to strike a deal looms. Some within the ranks of the GOP are looking to strike a deal, and the only deal possible will include some kind of tax increases, while others are intent on standing firm on their “no new taxes” pledge.

“Critics say that giving any ground on taxes would violate party doctrine that has not been challenged since President George H. W. Bush broke his ‘read my lips’ as part of a 1990 budget deal,” the article states. It notes that the conservative, anti-tax group, Americans for Prosperity, has mounted a campaign targeting some forty Republicans who have signified their willingness to raise taxes in order to shrink the deficit.

The article about GOP intransigence comes against the backdrop of actual progress towards reaching a deal. The latest GOP proposal before the super committee would raise $300 billion in tax revenue. The latest Democratic proposal takes a big step towards the GOP position, lowering their goals of debt reduction via tax increases from $1.3 trillion to $400 billion. It is insane to think that the super committee would fail simply because of a $100 billion difference.

The Republicans contend that the latest Democratic offer contains some funny numbers because the Democrats do not address the Bush tax cuts in their plan. It is hard to feel sympathy for the Republicans on this score. In 2001, with the country’s budget in surplus, Bush and the Republicans enacted a series of tax cuts, but even then, with the country’s financial house more or less in order, they had to set the tax cuts to expire in ten years because the CBO predicted long-term fiscal disaster if the cuts were made permanent. The sunset provision was a gimmick, but a necessary gimmick, because even then Bush and the GOP did not want to appear to be sacrificing the fiscal health of the government. That fiscal disaster is here now, and worse than anyone could have anticipated in 2001. And, surprise, surprise, the Republicans now say that it is wrong to raise taxes when the economy is so weak.

We get the point. Republicans cite good economic times as a justification for tax cuts. And they cite bad economic times as a justification for tax cuts. Republicans like tax cuts. But, something else in the GOP’s new orthodoxy is at work here. If there is no budget deal, government will look even more dysfunctional. Some polls indicate that more people blame the Republicans for the impasse than blame the Democrats, but over the long haul, any narrative that shows government to be dysfunctional aids the Republicans in their general anti-government stance.

The Catholic Church rejects the view that politics and government are bad. “The Catholic call to faithful citizenship affirms the importance of political participation and insists that public service is a worthy vocation” the bishops state in their document Faithful Citizenship. Indeed, as John Carr said recently at a symposium in New York City, the Church’s affirmation that politics is a noble thing may be the most counter-cultural aspect of the Church’s vast social teachings.

The U.S. bishops also have stated quite clearly that the federal budget should not be balanced on the backs of the poor. They worked very hard, and very successfully, to include a provision in the debt deal in August that spares many programs that help the poor from the across-the-board budget cuts that will occur if the super committee fails to reach agreement. In Faithful Citizenship, the bishops write: “Pope Benedict XVI has taught that ‘love for widows and orphans, prisoners, and the sick and needy of every kind, is as essential to [the Church] as the ministry of the sacraments and preaching of the Gospel’ (Deus Caritas Est, no. 22). This preferential option for the poor and vulnerable includes all who are marginalized in our nation and beyond—unborn children, persons with disabilities, the elderly and terminally ill, and victims of injustice and oppression.” Funny that neither the Pope nor the bishops cited any need for a preferential option for oil and gas companies and their tax breaks, or for those making more than $250,000 per year, or hedge fund managers.

My conservative friends will cry foul and argue that Catholics must make prudential judgments about economic matters and, so, we are permitted to disagree. My friend Rick Garnett, chastised me for claiming the mantle of Leo XIII during last week’s debate about labor rights in Ohio. Garnett’s most recent reply stated:

Second, Michael says ‘given the choice between raising taxes on rich folk and cutting benefits for teachers and firefighters and policemen and sanitation workers, I will vote for raising taxes on the rich every day of the week.’ But, with all due respect, this is not the choice I'm addressing, or the one that, really, we face. In order to avoid very serious fiscal problems in the not-very-distant future, cutting the (in many cases) excessive and inflated and unsustainable benefits of public employees will be necessary, in part because ‘raising taxes on rich folk’ would not and could not supply enough revenue (putting aside questions about who ‘the rich’ are and what their fair-share of taxes should be) to sustain our current practices and meet our current entitlement-spending obligations.

What my friend forgets is that both Governor Kasich and Ohio and Governor Walker in Wisconsin began their tenure by cutting taxes on rich folk, worsening their state’s ability to meet its pension obligations. And, he fails to note that in both states, public employee unions were willing to concede huge “give backs” in their pension benefits, but what they were not willing to concede was the principle that they have a right to collectively bargain over such matters.

Now, Garnett is a smart and thoughtful conservative, but I worry that he, too, has bought into the GOP meme that government spending is the principal threat to long-term fiscal sanity of a kind that he rightly notes would imperil future generations. That meme reflects a different set of values, drawn from Hayek and von Mises and, yes, Ayn Rand, about the how the government and the economy interact from the values at the heart of Catholic social teaching. But, more to the point, another connection between the Ohio labor battle and the super committee should by now be obvious: one side is willing to negotiate and reach a solution and the other side is so drunk on its own propaganda, they can’t negotiate. “Prudential judgment” does not cover every dispute: The time has come for some of my conservative Catholic friends to call out those on their side of the political aisle whose intransigence is pronounced, who adhere to an idolatrous economic orthodoxy, and who, in the event, are willing to risk yet graver harm to our social and political fabric, to say nothing of our economic future, by adhering to their no tax increases orthodoxy.

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