Bruce Ramsey / Times editorial columnist
Both political parties need to get serious about a deficit deal
Seattle Times columnist Bruce Ramsey says solving the federal deficit demands a deal between the left and the right, with the right giving up the Bush tax cuts and the left giving up federal programs.
Seattle Times editorial columnist
The federal deficit is now at 10.6 percent of gross domestic product, the highest share of the national output in 65 years. More than 40 percent of federal spending is being slapped on the Treasury's Visa card. The other day I was pressing Rep. Rick Larsen, Democrat, about it.
"My opponents on the left will say you just need to get out of Afghanistan and Iraq, and that will solve it," said Larsen, who supports the president on the war. "But it doesn't come close."
He was also for extending unemployment pay for $24 billion.
"And the deficit?" I asked.
The deficit, he said, "is bigger than that."
So it is. It is bigger than any single program — and war is a government program. What was notable about the congressman's logic was that the bigness of the problem was a reason to set it aside for later.
What is the Democrats' answer for the deficit? To revoke the Bush income-tax cuts for the top two brackets. Doing that recovers one third of the lost revenue, and the lost revenue accounts for less than one-fifth of the federal deficit.
The Democrats are not serious about the deficit.
The Republicans say they would cut spending. Maybe, like Britain's new Conservative prime minister, David Cameron, they mean it this time, and will be the Party of No. But the Republicans also want to keep blundering on in Afghanistan and keep all the Bush tax cuts.
Are they serious? Not nearly as much as the problem demands.
Both sides are waiting for the economic recovery, the absence of which is a tasty excuse for having a cupcake. Meanwhile, the Congressional Budget Office's projections have the deficit shrinking for a few years of recovery, then getting worse and worse.
Neither party is serious enough.
Serious means no longer putting the deficit problem behind other wants — our wars, our social benefits and our long-term political projects. It means putting the deficit first for a while.
And that means compromise. One can argue, theoretically, that the deficit ought to be made up entirely by taxing the people and cutting the military, as the left does, or by ending domestic programs, as the right does. The reality is that at $1.6 trillion, the two sides have to split the difference.
The Republicans have to give in on the Bush income-tax cuts and go back to the Bill Clinton rates — and for everyone, not just high earners. It will hurt doing this in a pinched economy, but we lived with those rates in the '90s. And the numbers demand it. A few Republicans — former Budget Director David Stockman and former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan, notably — have had the courage to say this.
I haven't heard a similar concession on the other side. Progressives were quick to applaud Stockman's concession — a conservative coming to his senses! — but they offer none of their own. For a deal to work, each side has to bleed. Democrats need to offer up some programs.
What programs? Obama's war, for starters — and some foreign bases, maybe. Subsidies to farmers. Matching grants for expired drawbridges. Public sculptures. Light rail. Federal money for school lunches. (Can't kids bring a sandwich?) Medicaid for children of the middle class. The federal government spends on a thousand things we could live without if we had to. Our grandparents did.
And we will have to. That is what the numbers say.
Bruce Ramsey's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is email@example.com
Sam and Sara Lucchese create handmade pasta out of their kitchen-garage adjacent to their Ballard home. Here, they illustrate the final steps in making pappardelle pasta.