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COLUMN archives back to April 26, 1999

TRANSCRIPT & COMMON GROUND archives back to July 2007

Today: Debt commission report.

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Cal Thomas is a conservative columnist. Bob Beckel is a liberal Democratic  strategist. But as longtime friends, they can often find common ground on issues  that lawmakers in Washington cannot. View the video version of this column at  www.opinion.usatoday.com or at USA TODAY’s YouTube channel at  youtube.com/usatoday.  Today: Debt commission report.   Cal: I suppose it’s no surprise that President Obama’s much-ballyhooed  deficit-reduction commission is haven’t trouble agreeing on what this country  should do to tackle our fiscal imbalance.  The 18-member panel released its  report on Wednesday,  but because of difficulties achieving a bipartisan  consensus, the final vote on the report was delayed until Friday. Bob: I’m about as surprised as I am when the sun rises every day — not very. Not  to be too cynical, but we’re getting to the point in American politics where  big, serious problems simply fester for a lack of political courage and/or will.  If this politically insulated panel can’t agree on a plan, how can 535 lawmakers  on Capitol Hill be expected to agree. It’s just shameful.  Cal: What the  debt commission  did not address, but should have, is one  fundamental question: What is the purpose of government? Absent a constitutional  and historical response to that question, there is no limit to what government  can spend, or government will do. You can’t read the Federalist Papers without  knowing the Founders wanted government to be limited. Thomas Paine said: “That  government is best that governs least.”  Bob: First, let me congratulate both former senator Alan Simpson, a Republican,  and Erskine Bowles, former chief of staff in the Clinton White House, for taking  on this assignment.  It’s the political equivalent of agreeing to sit in a  dunking booth while a bunch of Cy Young award winners fire balls your way.  Cal: It’s notable that when Simpson and Bowles released details of their own  deficit-reduction plan, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi reflexively called it “simply  unacceptable,” while on the other side, Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., has essentially  said that Social Security reform is off limits.   Bob: Cowardly politicians want to keep their collective heads in the sand, lest  they be lopped off by various interest groups. But with all due respect to you,  Cal, the panel’s assignment was not to determine what the purpose of government  is. Let’s stick to the matter at hand: getting our fiscal house in order before  we end up like Greece, or Ireland, or Spain, or  the list goes on.  Cal: All I am saying is that  philosophy drives policy. Defining the purpose of  government is fundamental.  Even so, it’s worth noting that the Simpson-Bowles  panel isn’t the only game in town. Former Clinton administration budget director  Alice Rivlin and Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis.,  have teamed up to address an issue the  other guys left out.  Bob: What? Cal: The swelling  health care entitlements. As assessed by The Weekly Standard,  the Rivlin-Ryan proposal is “extraordinarily bold and well-crafted  (it) would  leave the benefits of today’s retirees and near-retirees alone.”  Ryan and  Rivlin propose to change Medicare for those ages 55 and younger. Instead of  direct payments for medical care, they would allow retirees to buy private  health insurance. Payments for this purpose would be based on forecasts of what  per capita expenditures would be in 2021. And it would be means-tested, with  poorer seniors getting more help.  Bob: That sounds suspiciously like the private Social Security accounts George  W. Bush proposed.  The idea of leaving our future senior citizens’ health in the  hands of a largely discredited health insurance industry is risky. But here’s  the thing: It’s a serious proposal that deserves serious consideration by  serious people. My knee-jerk instinct is, “not so fast” rather than “no.” For  this deficit commission to be fruitful, we need Democrats and Republicans to  dissect and debate these proposals. “No” should not be the fall-back position.  Cal: OK, let’s tackle another idea that the panel took up: tinkering with the  home mortgage interest deduction.  Bob: How about no mortgage deductions for houses $750,000 and above?  Cal: I’d actually be OK with that, as long as the changes were folded in over  time to ease the market shock. For all of these proposals, people should  understand that timing is everything, and it’s worth noting that our economy  still must heal. This isn’t a cop-out to say we shouldn’t make these tough  decisions; it’s an acknowledgment that we’ll need to address these issues yet  can do so responsibly. Bob: What about that ultimate political minefield, Social Security reform. Are  you OK with raising the retirement age to 70?   Cal: I am. In fact, any serious discussion of the deficit must include our  entitlement programs. Let me go one further: We should also means-test Medicare.  If folks don’t need government subsidies, they shouldn’t get them. Bob: Which brings me to farm subsidies, like the untold billions going to corn  farmers for ethanol production.  This bipartisan boondoggle has to end. People  rightly point out that the big-ticket items — Social Security reform,  Medicare/Medicaid reform, defense spending — are all that matter when it comes  to cutting the debt. Not true.  We need to change the thinking so that $10  billion, for instance, is not viewed as a drop in the bucket. Cal: Realistically, though, is any of this going to happen? We both remember the  Grace Commission to tackle waste and inefficiency in the federal government. In  1986, some of its recommendations for reducing the debt were employed by  President Ronald Reagan. But the whole concept received little bipartisan  support, and this was during what now looks like the bipartisan golden age!    Bob: Once politicians start paying at the voting booth, they’ll change. You  would think that this last election would serve as smelling salts for those  headed back to Washington. But don’t hold your breath. As much as the public is  said to be up in arms about the deficit,  a CNN poll had the economy as the top  issue at 58%, the deficit at 8%.   But people are starting to understand that  the two are yoked. Without the public (besides the Tea Party) screaming for  deficit reduction, the politicians will not act. Most people hear “deficit  commission” and they flip the TV channel.  Cal: You knew that at some point we’d have to move this discussion to taxation,  so dare I begin?  Bob: Fire away. Cal: Raising taxes now would be like giving a beer to an alcoholic hoping he  will get sober. Let’s see some government responsibility with the money we have  already sent to Washington before we consider sending them more.  Bob: That’s sound-bite politics, Cal. No serious economist or politician  believes we can reduce a $13-trillion-dollar debt  without additional revenue. A  good chunk of our current annual deficit, in fact, can be directly attributed to  George W. Bush’s massive tax cuts, never mind two off-budget wars.  Cal: You and I have agreed previously  that Iraq should have been billed for  services rendered, but war is always an inconvenience and an off-budget expense.  Wars end. Higher taxes never seem to. Bob: It appears these tax cuts never end, either!  Cal: Clearly the government operates on a different playing field than the rest  of us. We have to pay our debts. The government simply takes more in taxes, and  when it runs out, borrows more from nations like China.  Bob: We’ve heard that before. We and the deficit panel should be past the point  of blaming and pointing fingers. We’re all guilty, OK? Democrats are guilty.  Republicans are guilty. The independents are even guilty. Individual Americans  are guilty. The people reading this column are guilty. Every person who has  served in Congress over the past generation his culpable. Fine. Let’s do  something about it. Cal: I take Simpson-Bowles as a starting point — like the health care law — and  hope the good parts will be implemented. The worst thing that could happen is  that the report is unheeded and winds up on a shelf like so many government  reports. Bob: For those who will kick and scream and say the debt problem is just too  big, they haven’t seen nothin’ yet. Cal, no one says this is going to be easy,  or that the solutions will be painless. Politics used to be a team sport. And  Pat Riley, one of the greatest NBA coaches in that league’s history, once said,  “Great teamwork is the only way we create the breakthroughs that define our  careers.” Now let’s see if President Obama, who likes a rough game of  basketball, and the next Congress will be historic leaders or historic failures. 

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