- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 4, 2006

Those who follow the news cycles in Washington know conflict drives coverage. Political pugilism sells with the press better than any other narrative. Given this predilection, the meager media attention to Democratic tactics on the recently passed Deficit Reduction Act was surprising. Reporters missed a chance to trumpet a favorite tune — politicians engaged in hypocrisy. The media still has a couple of weeks to atone before lawmakers send the measure to the president when they return later this month, but don’t hold your breath.

The House and Senate both passed a compromise version of the Deficit Reduction Act before the Christmas break — shaving budgetary red ink by nearly $40 billion over five years. The bill represents the first time in almost a decade that Congress has tackled the sleeping giant of mandatory spending — which now represents 56 percent of all federal expenditures. Senate Budget Committee Chairman Judd Gregg, writing on the Commentary page of this newspaper last week, said it well. “Every so often Congress is able to put its words into action,” he wrote. “Everyone talks about the need for fiscal responsibility, but last week Congress seized a historic opportunity to actually deliver on that promise.”

Yet not everyone joined in the fiscal carpe diem. Using a procedure known as the Byrd Rule, Senate Democrats maneuvered the measure back to the House for one final vote — but lawmakers already had gone home for Christmas. The delay means the bill won’t go to the president and become law until early February.

Mr. Gregg accurately characterizes congressional rhetoric — everyone talks about the need for fiscal responsibility. But his description of the solution was a bit imprecise. Yet, Congressional Republicans did “seize a historic opportunity.” But Democrats let it slip away. Not only did they oppose the spending-reduction plan en masse, but they offered no alternative — a detail on which the media gave the Democrats an unjustified pass. Opposing the details of a Republican deficit-reduction plan is certainly justified, from the standpoint of the opposition party. But offering no alternative — given all the Democrat rhetoric about Republican fiscal irresponsibility — is breathtakingly cavalier. And the media’s free pass to the Democrats looks a bit like the political equivalent of a fixed boxing match.

After the national debt reached $8 trillion last October, many Democrats expressed outrage and blamed Republicans. Rep. Mike Ross of Arkansas said, “this administration, this Republican Congress, has given us the largest budget deficit ever in our nation’s history for a fifth year in a row. This unprecedented and continually mounting debt is demonstrative of fiscal irresponsibility at its finest.” And Rep. Dennis Moore of Kansas said, “If Congress continues to ignore the long-term consequences of our current fiscal policy, we will be forcing our children and grandchildren to pay a steep price for the deficits and debt we create today.” Given these heartfelt concerns, you would think Democrats would develop an alternative. And if the Republicans’ proposed $40 billion in savings is too much for the Democratic Caucus to swallow, then how about $30 billion? Or what about $20 billion? Yet the dominant message from Democrats during debate in the House and Senate simply repeated a litany of reasons to oppose so-called draconian budget cuts.

Democrats’ taciturn policy response — especially compared to their rhetoric — seems like a natural focus for a conflict-hungry press corps. Where’s the loyal opposition’s plan? Yet the press seemed more interested in the impact of these savings on various constituencies or the Republicans’ internal difficulties mustering the votes for passage.

Stanford University political scientist Morris Fiorina, in his book “Culture Wars: The Myth of a Polarized America,” argues that the media’s passionate interest in covering conflict creates the perception of a nation that is deeply divided politically. He’s right. Yet the absence of any stories about the Democrats’ failure to address the federal government’s mounting fiscal woes — as the first Baby Boomers turn 60 this month and accelerate the pace of already burgeoning entitlement spending — suggests another motivation.

Maybe the press is also granting its ideological soulmates in the Democratic Party a free pass on one of the most important policy questions in a decade. The media needs to start asking the Democrats: Where’s your plan?

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