Cockeyed optimists and the federal budget

Will congressional Republicans and President Obama reach a budget deal this year?

20TH CENTURY FOX/Album/Newscom
Actress Mitzi Gaynor sings in the 1958 film production of the musical "South Pacific." Guest blogger Diane Lim Rogers writes that people who think that the president and congressional Republicans will come to an agreement on the budget this year sound a lot like Ms. Gaynor in the number "A Cockeyed Optimist."

In Sunday’s Washington Post, the “Topic A” question (at the back of the A section) asked about the (my italics) “prospects that the president and congressional Republicans would reach a serious budget deal this year.” My answer was “basically nil” because politicians still view putting things on the table as admitting fault. Bill Gale’s answer was “small” because the Republicans are still too entrenched in their “no new taxes” fantasy world. Maya MacGuineas sounded a bit more optimistic that policymakers might actually try doing the right thing but only after they try all the wrong things first! But Alice Rivlin, the only person who was on both President Obama’s fiscal commission as well as (co-chair of) the Bipartisan Policy Center’s version, was clearly the most optimistic of us all, saying (emphasis added):

Here is an optimistic scenario that could result in a serious long-run budget agreement this year: First, a bipartisan group of senators crafts a long-run budget plan that slows the future growth of Medicare and Medicaid, puts Social Security on sound fiscal basis, simplifies the tax code to raise more revenue from broader base with lower rates, and caps discretionary spending (defense and domestic). This step doesn’t take long, because the bipartisan group is already working and has the Simpson-Bowles and Domenici-Rivlin plans to build on. Next, the president and the House leadership join the negotiations. Political perceptions begin to shift. After the sharp world-market reaction to the brief battle over the debt-ceiling increase, all participants are scared of not acting. Fear of taking the first step to slow entitlement growth or raise additional revenue is replaced by fear of being blamed for blowing up the deal and throwing the economy into a new tailspin. The deal no one thought possible is signed in the Rose Garden in the October sunshine, markets react positively, business steps up hiring and economic growth accelerates.

I think Alice was thinking like Mitzi Gaynor’s “Cockeyed Optimist” (in South Pacific, above)–right down to the bright canary yellow skies! Then when the Post came out with an op-ed by Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, the co-chairs of the president’s commission, also displaying an unusual helping of optimism (right above our Topic A responses), I realized that for one to want to chair a fiscal commission for a task as impossible (given the politics) as deficit reduction, one must be an inherently optimistic person. So they’re just “commission-eyed optimists.”

Which, by the way, is the way you can tell a true devotee to fiscal discipline apart from a wannabe who plays a fiscal hawk for purely political gain. As my boss (the Concord Coalition’s executive director) Bob Bixby likes to say, if it were all “doom and gloom” we wouldn’t keep doing what we do to try to encourage fiscal responsibility.

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