Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Stimulus and the deficit commission

Ezra Klein posted this morning about an idea that, I'll admit, hadn't occurred to me: using the deficit commission to pass additional stimulus.

Ezra focuses on the Democrats' willingness to make it happen -- whether they have the resolve to use the leverage of the deficit trigger to pursue job creation measures.

And that's all well and good. But the more important question here is, "Could it even work?" In other words, "Would the Republicans on the commission allow Democrats to include stimulus measures in the final package?"

I'm skeptical, but not totally pessimistic. Obviously, in a legislative context, the Republican Party has proven almost completely resistant to any form of compromise. There is basically a zero percent chance that anything resembling a stimulus measure could wend its way through Congress while Obama is still president.*

On the other hand, for whatever reason, small, bipartisan committees have tended to spit out much more moderate plans and compromises than the Congress as a whole. See: Simpson-Bowles, the Gang of Six.

Why is this? It's hard to say. It could be that, in a smaller setting, Republicans find it harder to ignore some of the major defects in their argument. (That tax hikes aren't a viable means of reducing the deficit, for instance.) In a one-on-one setting -- or close to it -- individual legislators might be called on to explain and defend their positions, and finding themselves unable to do so, forced to yield a bit. I also suspect diffusion of responsibility plays a role. In the debt ceiling fiasco, most Republicans got off pretty easy: they never personally had to threaten to blow up the economy, because a tiny fringe of right-wing nutjobs were doing the dirty work for them. And even among the nutjob caucus, no single member was responsible for the crisis. Everyone could point to some other group of people and say "It's really their fault." In a small committee, obstructionism will have a name and a face. That may create more incentive to compromise.

Also, in the past, committees have been able to labor in relative obscurity. Their negotiations could proceed without interference from party leadership and, especially, party activists. Each side could make concessions that, taken alone, would enrage the base, safe in the knowledge that the final plan wouldn't be presented to the public until it was in a form that was (somewhat) mutually tolerable. Congressional negotiations, by comparison, tend to attract more public scrutiny.

So which will it be? Will the deficit commission be more like a mini-legislature or a super-committee? If it's the former, we can probably rule stimulus out. If it's the latter, the range of possibilities could be much broader.

Are six Republicans enough to diffuse responsibility for obstructing a compromise? Will they be forced to defend their policy arguments? Will negotiations take place in secret? Or will the entire process play out in the public eye, with each side acting as a proxy for their entire party?

I don't know the answers yet, but they will determine the final composition of the commission's plan.

*If Mitt Romney becomes president, however, expect additional stimulus. It's very doubtful that most congressional Republicans have completely abandoned the mainstream economic theories that they subscribed to in the Bush years, and you can count on them readopting those theories in full once the nation's economic interests run parallel to their political interests.

1 comment:

  1. "will the entire process play out in the public eye"

    This is the true story...of 6 senators...and 6 members of the house...working together to cut the deficit...and having the negotiations find out what happens...when republicans stop playing obstructionist politics...and start being real