Vague language is OK in early debt reduction talks

Non-specific terms like 'tax reform' and 'entitlement changes' help rally people around the idea that some changes must be made

By , Guest blogger

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    President Obama is pictured with leaders of the US Senate and House of Representatives during a bipartisan meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington, January 5, 2009. With Obama are John Boehner, Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, and Mitch McConnell. Guest blogger Donald Marron recently helped advise these five leaders about debt reduction.
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You may have noticed a flurry of letters lately calling on our elected leaders to do something about America’s growing debt. First up were 64 senators. Then 10 former chairs of the Council of Economic Advisers. And today, 68 budget experts including yours truly.

Our message to President Obama and congressional leaders Boehner, Pelosi, Reid, and McConnell:

As you continue to work on our current budget situation, we are writing to let you know that we join with the 64 Senators who recently wrote that comprehensive deficit reduction measures are imperative, and to urge you to work together in support of a broad approach to solving the nation’s fiscal problems. As they said in their letter to President Obama:

“As you know, a bipartisan group of Senators has been working to craft a comprehensive deficit reduction package based upon the recommendations of the Fiscal Commission. While we may not agree with every aspect of the Commission’s recommendations, we believe that its work represents an important foundation to achieve meaningful progress on our debt. The Commission’s work also underscored the scope and breadth of our nation’s long-term fiscal challenges.

Beyond FY2011 funding decisions, we urge you to engage in a broader discussion about a comprehensive deficit reduction package. Specifically, we hope that the discussion will include discretionary spending cuts, entitlement changes and tax reform.”

You may also have noticed that final phrase is decidedly non-specific. As my TPC colleague Howard Gleckman noted, there’s a lot of euphemizing going on.

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That’s understandable and, frankly, necessary at this point of the process. Step 1 is to demonstrate that folks with a broad range of views agree that something must be done about our building debt. Getting that consensus requires some vagueness about the eventual policy solutions. Hence such elliptical phrases as “tax reform” and “entitlement changes.”

I usually use the phrase “tax reform” to mean structural changes — improvements, one hopes — to the tax code independent of revenue levels. For purposes of this letter, however, I interpret it as meaning revenue increases as well. As regular readers know, I think the best way to do that is to attack spending-like provisions that are structured as tax preferences.

I interpret “entitlement changes” to be reductions in the biggest entitlement programs — Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security relative to the spending scheduled under current law. That qualifying phrase is important, since there’s plenty of room to reduce the growth rate of these programs without cutting below today’s benefit levels. Some smaller entitlements like farm subsidies, however, should be cut from today’s levels.

Finally, I believe the “discretionary spending cuts” should include security spending, not just non-security.

So that’s what I mean by the euphemisms.

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