Conservatives are worried that the negotiations that will begin this week to avoid the “fiscal cliff” will end in disaster. Tax increases that will weaken the economy could be combined with spending cuts that never materialize in an agreement that will leave many Republicans — especially those who have signed the “no net new taxes” pledge promoted by Americans for Tax Reform — vulnerable to public outrage, and indeed to primary challenges in the midterm elections.
The way to avoid that outcome may be for conservatives to insist on the transparency and openness that Barack Obama has spent much of his career promoting but has almost never delivered in practice. The White House has asserted false claims of executive privilege to avoid questions on the Justice Department’s Fast and Furious gun-running scandal. The Washington Post reported last year that a large number of requests for public records elicited no material at all from the administration. The same Barack Obama who as a 2008 candidate promised that health-care negotiations would be shown on C-SPAN instead cobbled together the abomination of Obamacare behind closed doors.
Many old Washington hands recall that Republicans agreed on tax-increase-for-spending-cuts deals in 1982 under Ronald Reagan and in 1990 under George H. W. Bush. These deals politically damaged the party in the short run, and they also proved to be bad policy. The 1982 budget deal, which promised seven dollars in spending cuts for every three dollars in tax increases, was never honored. Congress agreed to less than 27 cents in spending cuts for every dollar of tax increases, and President Reagan came to bitterly regret his decision to approve the deal. Ed Meese, Reagan’s senior counselor at the time and later his attorney general, recalls that the 1982 deal “was the worst domestic-policy mistake of the Reagan administration.”
Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the top Republican on the Senate Budget Committee today, has argued that transparency will help conservatives avoid the worst possible budget outcomes. “Secrecy cements the status quo: more spending, more debt, more runaway government,” he said this month in a news release. “It is the enemy of accountability, change, and reform. We cannot simply rush through some secret deal that no one can amend, alter, review, scrutinize, or dispute.” He thinks that Congress needs to take at least a week to debate any deal and offer amendments, and that it needs to make the proposal available on the Internet for public review: “It is time to try the one thing that hasn’t been tried: open, public process on the Senate floor.”
Americans for Tax Reform’s founder, Grover Norquist, who originated the anti-tax-increase pledge, says that having an honest, open debate will promote political accountability. “The party that doesn’t want the budget debate to be transparent can be held to account,” he told me. “The American people should get to see the sausage being made and get to read the contract before it’s signed. They shouldn’t have to wait a year for Bob Woodward to write a book about what really happened behind closed doors.”
But calling for transparency isn’t enough. Democrats have every incentive not to agree to transparency, but conservatives should not let the issue fall by the wayside. They must insist on an open process as the fiscal cliff approaches.
Senate majority leader Harry Reid has gotten away with flouting the law — which requires the Senate to adopt a budget resolution each year by April 15 — for more than 1,300 days. Reid even admitted in 2011 that one of his motivations for ignoring this law was that it would be politically “foolish” for his party to adopt a budget. President Obama offered his own budget plan earlier this year, but it was so unrealistic and stuffed with accounting gimmicks that not a single person in his own party in Congress supported it when it came to a vote.
In February, treasury secretary Timothy Geithner admitted in congressional testimony that the administration lacks a long-term plan to deal with the nation’s soaring $16 trillion debt. “We’re not coming before you today to say we have a definitive solution to that long-term problem,” he told House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan. “What we do know is, we don’t like yours.”
Having the budget negotiations out in the open would at least expose such blatant hypocrisy on the part of the Obama administration or, at best, force it to pony up and negotiate honestly. If negotiations remain in the shadows, Democrats will follow the precedent they’ve set in years past and push for higher taxes in order to feed an ever-growing government that they have little interest in reforming.
— John Fund is national-affairs columnist for NRO.