The fiscal commission’s failure

By Felix Salmon
December 3, 2010

I’m fascinated by the various headlines reporting the deficit commission’s 11-7 vote.

Some treat the plan as some kind of independent entity which was lobbying for votes: the WSJ runs with “Deficit Plan Fails to Win Panel Support,” while Reuters plumps for “Deficit-cut plan falls short, offers framework” and Fox News has “Deficit Commission Report Fails to Advance to Congress.” The Washington Post goes long: “Deficit plan wins 11 of 18 votes; more than expected, but not enough to force action.”

Other headlines concentrate on the panel as the key actors, and the range of views here is very wide. Bloomberg says bluntly that “Debt Panel Rejects $3.8 Trillion Budget-Cutting Plan,” in line with the FT’s “Panel reject US budget deficit plan”. Politico is a bit softer — “Debt panel falls short on votes” — while NPR is positively upbeat: “Majority Of Deficit Commission Endorses Plan; Not Enough To Make It Automatic.” Ezra, too, looks on the bright side, plumping for “The fiscal commission succeeded — sort of.”

My feeling here is that the second group is probably better than the first: the news here should properly focus on the deficit commission and what it has failed or succeeded in doing. It was the commission which was charged with putting a bipartisan plan together, it was the commission which faced the very high hurdle of getting 14 votes (a 78% supermajority), and it was the commission which ultimately didn’t manage to get there.

Interestingly, there was one particular caucus within the commission which was responsible for its failure: the members of the House. There were six of them altogether, three Republicans and three Democrats, and five of the six voted no; those five votes alone were enough to veto the plan.

There’s a certain irony there, in that it’s the House which just passed the fiscally responsible version of extending the Bush tax cuts, and it’s the Senate which seems to want to pass the much less responsible version with lots of extra tax cuts for the rich. It seems that senators love to clothe themselves in the garb of fiscal statesmen when it doesn’t matter, but balk at such ideas when they actually come up for a vote; the House, meanwhile, works the other way around. Needless to say, none of this bodes well for getting anything substantive through Congress in the foreseeable future.

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