David Weigel on the Meaning of Compromise

by Reihan Salam

I’m a bit confused by David Weigel’s latest dispatch on the supposed Republican efforts to deflect blame for the failure of the Super Committee. Two things I’d like to see clarified:

(1) Republicans claim that they offered an increase in net tax revenues, crossing what had previously been a red line for the GOP, e.g., in an op-ed Weigel cites published in the Washington Post:

The essence of the plan was to dramatically reduce the deductions and credits wealthier taxpayers can claim to reduce their tax liability. That would generate enough revenue to both permanently reduce marginal rates for all taxpayers and provide more than $250 billion for deficit reduction. Added to other receipts, taxes and fees, the Republican plan amounted to more than $500 billion in deficit reduction revenue and $900 billion in spending reductions. We believe this lowering of the rates and broadening of the tax base would have spurred economic growth, created jobs and, in the process, generated billions more in revenue from growth in the economy.

Now, here’s the key: None of this can happen if the current law’s automatic tax increases occur on Jan. 1, 2013. We can’t both reform the code as Republicans propose and undo it all 12 months later.

Democrats made a point of saying that they would accept the new tax revenue in the plan but that they still also wanted the 2013 tax increase — which, of course, would negate the benefits of the proposal.

Is this not actually true? If it is true, then it seems fair for Republicans to say that they did indeed budge on taxes, but because they were unwilling to contemplate a tax increase congressional Democrats considered large enough they found themselves at an impasse. So yes, Weigel is right when he writes:

Saying that the other party wanted “$1 trillion in new taxes” is saying that you wouldn’t compromise on taxes.

But only if our definition of compromise is “conceding not just that we need increased tax revenues but rather accepting $1 trillion.” Which seems strange. If we accept that it is true that Republicans have resisted net tax increases before the Super Committee, accepting net tax increases represents movement “leftward” — and that is what we tend to think of as a willingness to compromise. 

(2) House Republicans embraced a Medicare reform proposal that included an unrealistic growth rate for premium support. According to congressional Republicans, the conservatives on the Super Committee embraced a bipartisan proposal sponsored by Alice Rivlin and Pete Domenici as a starting point. The Democrats on the committee rejected this proposal. Is it reasonable to describe the BPC proposal as a compromise? I think it is, as it implies a somewhat higher level of growth in federal expenditures than some conservatives had previously been willing to countenance.  

This actually doesn’t mean that a compromise was possible — it seems likely that congressional Democrats see no percentage in brokering a deal. Among the progressives I’ve encountered, including a sitting member of the House, the consensus seemed to be that the success of the Super Committee would have represented a victory for the forces of austerity, and so defeat was a good thing politically and otherwise. This, of course, would mean that the congressional Republicans are basically right. 

Granted, this is not a particularly clever or exotic interpretation: Democratic base voters don’t like fiscal austerity, so agreeing to entitlement reforms isn’t very attractive even if it means getting the right to budge on taxes. But that doesn’t mean it’s not right. 

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.