The Supercommittee Blame Game

by Ramesh Ponnuru

David Weigel, at Slate, blames the supercommittee Republicans for the failure to reach a deal. His chief evidence: They keep insisting they’re not to blame. They wouldn’t do that if they were innocent! His secondary evidence: They admit that the key difference between the parties was that Democrats insisted on $1 trillion in tax increases and they refused to go along. It was their decision not to go along that prevented an agreement.

Neither point is persuasive. Weigel himself cites poll data showing that the public blamed Republicans for the debt-ceiling standoff over the summer. In itself, those polls might explain why blameless Republicans might be particularly eager to make the case for their blamelessness. As it happens, though, I think Weigel overstates the case about how much more Republicans have been spinning the supercommittee failure than Democrats. He doesn’t mention John Kerry’s efforts in this regard, or Chris van Hollen’s.

On the second point: Yes, it is true that a full Republican capitulation to the Democrats would have yielded an agreement. By that standard both sides in a negotiation are always to blame for any failure to reach an agreement, since it is equally true that Democratic capitulation to premium support and no tax increases at all would have yielded an agreement. But it seems to me that the Republicans, by saying that they would accept a reduction in tax rates and tax breaks that yielded a net tax increase over the current tax code, showed a willingness to compromise–even Senator Durbin called it a breakthrough–that was not matched on the Democratic side.

Weigel takes a shot at what he curiously calls “the 2007 tax rates” by saying, “[S]ure enough, at the height of an unrepeatable economic bubble, they were enough to fund the government.” Weigel seems to assume that the bubble represented an increase in economic activity over its natural levels, whereas it seems to me more plausible to see it as having replaced healthier economic activity that would otherwise have taken place. In any case, it seems to me quite implausible to suggest that we can never reach the levels of economic activity and real economic growth achieved at that time. I can see making the case that the retirement of the Boomers requires tax increases, but Weigel’s point strikes me as pretty weak.

Update: typo fixed.

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