Saturday, February 20, 2010

Just a glimmer.

For a brief moment, listening to Alan Simpson talk about the work to come of the Debt Commission, I was seized by a moment of optimism. Perhaps there is a glimmer of hope that the cascading problem of debt and entitlements might be honestly and openly discussed, and then addressed, before the weight of our collective irresponsibility collapses around us.

As Simpson noted bluntly, there is not a person within the political establishment in the nation’s capital that does not know the depth of the problem. It is notable, then, how little s actually has been done to address the problems, particularly given the amount of hubris, hot air, and sound bites that focus on the problem.

In many respects, the challenges are simple. With respect to the operations of the Federal government, we spend more than we take in. Compulsively. Collectively.

In some respects, operating deficits as an ongoing problem was exacerbated by two political moments, one by each party. Ronald Reagan fundamentally changed the relationship between the political parties with his embrace of supply side economics, and the articulation of the notion that tax cuts are a politically and morally self-justifying imperative, without little regard to fiscal consequences.

While Reagan took office at a time of very high marginal tax rates, and the salutary a affect on economic output of reductions in rates was clear, Reaganomics came to represent the view simply that economic output is improved with lower taxes—a premise that surely remains true all the way down to a tax rate of zero. But the obligation of governance remains the balancing of revenues and expenditures, and the premise argued by David Stockman, Grover Norquist and others that lower revenues will lead to lower spending proved to be manifestly false when put to its test in the ensuing quarter century.

At the end of the day, the miracle of the Reagan Revolution was that it effectively ended the power of conservatism as a force for fiscal rectitude in American politics. In the succinct words of Pete Petersen, the Republic Party fell prey to the unholy alliance of tax-cutting Republicans and big-spending Republicans.

If Ronald Reagan ended the Republican Party’s stance as a force for fiscal responsibility in the 1980s, Bill Clinton matched his contribution a decade later. Just as the large share of Republicans who admire President Reagan in unblemished terms will take umbrage at this assessment of his contribution to our problems, so too will many Democrats point to President Clinton positive contributions, as the one who left George W. Bush with balanced budgets.

But Bill Clinton also brought to the Democrat Party a commitment to build a fundraising apparatus to match the Republican Party’s fundraising prowess within corporate America. After years of watching the tireless efforts of Peter Terpeluk and Wayne Berman and the other titans of the Republican Party fundraising community develop teams of Eagles and Pioneers, with assurances of access to the top and throughout the bureaucracy, Clinton built a Democrat commitment to a kinder and gentler relationship with the for-profit community.

Clinton’s greatest success in his transformation of the Democrat Party’s relationship with corporate America came in Wall Street. Formerly the heart of the Grand Old Party, the Clintons built a foundation of support for the Democrat Party in lower Manhattan. And by the end of Clinton’s presidency, his administration matched the zeal of the Republicans in promoting the deregulation of the banking industry, ending Glass Steagall restrictions, and fending off regulation of the growing derivatives markets, even in the face of serial financial crises that would have deterred a less determined leader.

The past decade has been a golden age for corporations seeking to access the power and the purse of the federal government in the pursuit of corporate interests and the generation of private wealth. In addition to the financial reforms at the end of the Clinton Presidency, the banking industry pursued and won comprehensive bankruptcy reform several years later, with broad and bipartisan support from willing and well-compensated Congressional supporters on both sides of the aisle.

In terms of accessing the purse of the federal government, the success of the pharmaceuticals industry in passing the Medicare Part D reforms provided a nearly uncapped access to the federal treasury, and again won willing support on both sides of the aisle, with only lip service paid to the massive fiscal consequences of such an open-ended money grab.

In terms of harnessing the power of the federal government in pursuit of corporate goals, bankruptcy reform is one example, while a more interesting example was the near-decade long support of FDA regulation of tobacco products by Philip Morris. While FDA regulation was a long-held goal of health advocates, Philip Morris understood that FDA regulation—and the strict limitations on advertising that would ensue—would effectively lock in Philip Morris’ dominant market share in that industry, reducing advertising costs, increasing profitability and elevating its share price.

Alan Simpson’s challenge is to stare down his long-time Congressional colleagues, and demand that they finally accept that their overriding responsibility is to tend to the long-term health of our nation. It is not about their own reelection or the success of one political party on another. Not in this matter.

But each Senator—with the possible exception of Scott Brown, who may not have been there long enough—probably firmly believes that every vote they cast is made with conviction and integrity. They believe the spin that is wrapped artfully around each vote. Bankruptcy reform is about consumer protection and personal responsibility, not about bank power and profitability. Financial reform was about economic growth and efficiency, not about the accumulation of power and profitability on Wall Street. Medicare Part D was about improving the health and well-being of seniors—on whose comfort we can place no price—not about creating massive new markets for a dizzying array of new drugs for newly minted syndromes.

But whatever they might believe about how they vote, Alan Simpson understands what has increasingly become clear across the political spectrum—from tea partyers and CPAC members on the right to those on the left who watched their dreams of single payer healthcare swiftly subordinated to the interests of the range of corporate interests brought “inside the tent” in the early days of the Obama administration—that the main challenge facing his efforts is dealing with the very people whose votes he needs. The changes wrought by Presidents Reagan and Clinton left us with a national capital where votes can easily be bought and the core principles of fiscal prudence are little more than buzzwords and political applause lines.

But I must remain optimistic about Alan Simpson’s new challenge. If—as Simpson suggests—everyone inside the beltway understands the truth of what we face, than they must succeed, because everyone outside the beltway understands it as well.

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