Temper tantrums over the deficit

Our country's leaders are acting like children, fighting and whining about the budget

Daniel Sicolo/Design Pics/Newscom
Those involved in budget talks are acting like children. What will it take to have some real "adult conversations" about the deficit?

Ezra Klein so aptly wonders whether John Boehner is more likely to lead on the solution or to continue to be a big part of the problem:

Remember Boehner attacking Democrats for holding ”a press conference to pat themselves on the back for ‘protecting’ Medicare, even though their government takeover of health care bill would cut seniors’ Medicare benefits by $500 billion”? Remember how he ended that statement? “Are you kidding me?”

Which gets to the real issue here: the public isn’t so much resistant to deficit reduction as receptive to demagogic attacks on the sort of policies needed to reduce deficits — including the ones we’ve already passed into law. Boehner has proposed some sort of truce on these issues to Obama — the president responded “positively,” Boehner said — but it’ll be the terms and strength of that detente, not whatever happens at constituent workweek, that’ll decide whether we get to a deal. And to a lot of Democrats, Boehner’s offer sounds a bit suspect: the GOP, having won the election in large part by hammering Democrats for Medicare cuts, wants an agreement to end criticism of Medicare cuts right before they propose some of their own. It’s got a very “do as I say, not as I do,” feel to it.

If Boehner is going to convince Democrats that this is good faith rather than crass calculation, he’ll need to go first. One way to start? Adopting a more balanced and honest take on the Affordable Care Act. No more calling the bill “job destroying” because it makes people richer and makes it easier for early retirees to buy health care on their own. No more attacking the bill for being both fiscally irresponsible and for cutting Medicare and taxing high-value health-care plans. The truth is, the Affordable Care Act does more to control costs in Medicare than any single piece of legislation we’ve ever passed. If Boehner is so serious about a new tone and an educational discussion over entitlements, then it’s time for him to admit that.

It seems to me that for all the talk about the need for “adult conversations” about the budget deficit, we continue to see immaturity on the issue from all the political sides of the debate: temper tantrums about the small stuff, denial over one’s own role in the mess, bullying and finger-pointing about it being the other side’s fault, clinging to fairy tales and fantasies (such as about deficit-financed tax cuts or investments paying for themselves), ignoring advice we don’t like (even that we have ourselves asked for–i.e., the fiscal commission), and shirking our duties as the parents to our kids (by letting the debt continue to pile up). There’s a huge amount of psychological dysfunction among our leadership right now. How can we get anywhere with deficit reduction if there aren’t any adults in charge? Where is the analogous miracle-worker (fiscal) therapist–if even Alice hasn’t yet proven to be the one?

(Addendum: Perhaps CBO director Doug Elmendorf is the “therapist” Congress needs.)

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