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BIRNBAUM: Devilish details of the debt debate
Cutting spending is easy in the abstract but hard when people gripe
Question of the Day
Negotiators have been busy discussing the broad strokes of deficit reduction. As far as the public is aware, the talks have been about not just the shape of government but also its purpose and overall direction. That’s high-minded stuff — too high-minded.
Budget changes are about winners and losers — not in a general sense, but in a very concrete way. The federal government is made up of thousands of line items — in both spending programs and tax preferences. Each has a constituency and, therefore, a direct impact on real people and businesses.
What is cut or, for that matter, raised, in the name of reducing the debt will not end with a “grand bargain” devised by a handful of elected officials quietly hidden away in the White House.
That’s where the bargaining begins.
Now, finally, real legislation is on tap on Capitol Hill. As a result, expect the efforts to falter before passing. They even could fail because the details are what matter to the voters who put the legislators there.
Just think about how many people will be impacted by any single element of a broad deficit-reduction plan. Wheat growers might get less in federal subsidies. States might get fewer dollars to build roads and bridges. Physicians might get lower Medicare reimbursements.
And these would be among the bigger items. Smaller alterations will be sprinkled throughout the budget deal, if there is one. And a fight will be waged over each one in order for it to make it out the other end of the legislative process.
Constituents are frustrated by the slowness of Congress to do anything. They complain that Washington is gridlocked and unresponsive. But that’s not true.
Washington is responsive to a fault. It is reacting — at times overreacting — to the wishes of Americans who don’t want to lose what they have or what they believe they have coming to them.
The capital is filled with politicians whose purpose in life is to please voters. Usually that means dispensing handouts and tax breaks — actions that put money or services in the hands of discrete, definable groups of people.
This year, the agenda has changed. Indeed, it’s remarkable that the wave of Tea Party adherents elected to the House of Representatives last year has been able to work as a bloc to move the debate from economic stimulation to deficit reduction in such a short time. Elections do have consequences.
But the conversation so far has been focused on rhetoric, philosophy and numbers so huge that they’re meaningless. What’s the difference between $2 trillion and $4 trillion in savings over 10 years? Both are unfathomable abstractions that no one outside of a handful of experts has been able to decipher.
But that will change.
If the negotiators actually produce a plan, the details will spill out over the political landscape and create firefights everywhere, some large, some small. All of serious consequence.
The reason Washington is slow to act is because voters give up their benefits reluctantly — if at all. Trying to take away a few thousand of them at once will be not just a grand bargain but a near-miracle — at least in the few short days that remain until the Aug. 2 deadline for raising the federal borrowing limit.
Clearly, America needs a smaller government and a heavy dose of debt reduction. Like so many other countries in the world, the United States is badly overextended and must retrench to survive. But getting that done will be harder than anyone is suggesting publicly.
Meantime, the negotiators’ political posturing, especially President Obama’s, has been dangerously counterproductive. Our leaders have been engaging in vague hyperbole during near-daily news conferences that have no purpose other than to gain partisan advantage.
Such games demean the high office the negotiators hold and, worse, make reaching a substantive, detailed deal more difficult, if not impossible. The still-to-come struggle to find enough votes for a multifaceted plan will be made even more excruciating as well.
Taking up and running with the spending cuts accepted as a consensus by the bipartisan negotiations led weeks ago by Vice President Joseph R. Biden is probably the only scenario than can work. The reason: The critical details — the winners and losers — have been circulating for a while and have not created much backlash.
Getting those specifics through a balky Congress is what the enterprise is all about. The solvency of a nation — and the financial stability of the world — hang in the balance.
Jeffrey H. Birnbaum is a Washington Times columnist, a Fox News contributor and president of BGR Public Relations. His clients include health companies and airlines.
By Andrew P. Napolitano
Fourth Amendment says Obama is not at liberty to collect metadata
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