One of this blog’s running themes is that Democrats should be more scrupulous democrats. The good news that Obama and John Boehner may have broken the impasse on raising the debt ceiling is more grist for my mill.
Obama’s reportedly willing to contemplate $3 trillion in spending cuts, including cuts to Medicare and Social Security, and Boehner’s reportedly willing to contemplate raising as much as $1 trillion in additional revenues. Say what you will about the merits of a deal along these lines, but we should all be breathing easier insofar as the fact that Obama and Boehner are entertaining it means they’re disinclined to play chicken with the full faith and credit of the United States. Let’s leave the merits of the deal aside so that we can concentrate on the democratic integrity of the political process that will have brought us there if it gets done.
Consider this skeletal timeline:
In the last congressional session, a Democratically controlled Congress decides not to pass a budget in deference to the report issued by the Simpson-Bowles Debt Commission last December. Congress did nothing to act on the Commission’s recommendations in the lame duck session—indeed, it added to the public debt by extending the Bush tax cuts and stimulus measures without offsetting spending cuts.
In February, Obama proposed a budget that studiously ignored the Simpson-Bowles recommendations and the budgetary problems they were meant to address. In March, the Republican House passed the Paul Ryan budget, with its controversial Medicare reforms. Soon thereafter Harry Reid announced that the Democratically controlled Senate wouldn’t be discharging its statutory duty to pass a budget for the next fiscal year either.
By April, Obama pulled back his own budget proposal in favor of one that was too vague for the Congressional Budget Office to score and for Congress to act on. The next month, the House budget secured no Democratic votes and all but five Republican votes in the Senate. On the same day, the Senate voted down Obama’s February budget 97-0.
Since then, all the budgetary action has proceeded behind closed doors, in negotiations among the Gang of Six in the Senate and negotiations among congressional leaders presided over by Joe Biden. Now, apparently, Obama and Boehner are leading the secret negotiations.
Is that any way for a democratic polity to reach a public decision about what its budgetary priorities ought to be? If you ask me, the Republican priorities revealed by the Ryan budget are pretty scary, but at least we have a decent idea of what they are. If and when a debt ceiling deal gets done, voters will know something not only about what budgetary parameters Republicans will accept under divided government, but what they’d do if they controlled the whole government. That’s vital information for the electorate to have when it’s gearing up for the 2012 election.
Your explanation of why Democrats are holding their budgetary cards close to their vest is as good as mine. Maybe they’re too divided among themselves to agree on governing priorities. Or maybe they’ve decided that, under present circumstances, it’s politically imprudent to reveal the priorities that they do agree on. For all I know, as a matter of electioneering, they're playing their cards well. Yet if there’s a respectably democratic rationale for the way the Democrats are playing them I’d like to hear it.
Have we reached the point where it's naïve to expect Democrats to act like democrats?