A quartet of Saxby Chambliss’ new best friends toured metro Atlanta this week.
Their task was to scare the bejeezus out of every human being they came in contact with. And they did a stellar job.
In front of Atlanta Kiwanians, on a public television program, in discussions at Kennesaw State University and before the Atlanta Press Club, these four experts on the blooming federal deficit warned that we stand on the edge of catastrophe.
However harmless she may look, diminutive Alice Rivlin, an economist and member of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, was an absolute terror.
“We could tank the economy, go into a recession much worse than the one we’re coming out of now, and we’d be a much less prosperous or influential nation for a long time,” she said for the cameras in Georgia Public Broadcasting’s basement studios.
“We’ve made all these promises to older people, under Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid, and we don’t have the revenues to pay for it. That’s the big structural problem going forward, and it gets worse,” she said.
Rivlin and her three friends — former U.S. comptroller David Walker; Robert Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition; and Joseph Antos, a health care expert with the American Enterprise Institute — are essential to Georgia’s senior senator.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, they were his alibi. Their reams of dark statistics explain why Chambliss has embarked on what could be the riskiest venture of his political career.
For the last few months, Chambliss and chamber colleague Mark Warner, a Democrat from Virginia, have formed the core of a bipartisan Senate venture to implement as many recommendations of the deficit commission — issued last December — as possible.
Forbes magazine is paying attention. The Economist is impressed. An editorial in the Washington Post this week heaped praise on the pair: “With the president having failed to offer leadership and House Republicans frittering away their energies on a tiny slice of the budget, the Warner-Chambliss effort is looking like the only game in town.”
Fame comes with a price. For Democrats, a deficit deal could mean severe and uncomfortable cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and the rest of the social safety net. For Chambliss and other Republicans, the political risk is the fact — not theory, but hard fact — that Americans will have to begin paying for the real cost of their government.
No one has gotten down to specifics, so — for the moment — the stark solutions remain theoretical.
In a telephone interview, Chambliss said he and his colleagues hope to lure President Barack Obama and House Republicans into negotiations by late spring, during the debate in Congress over raising the debt ceiling.
If that’s the case, the bargaining will make the current budget tussle in Washington look like the pie fight that it is — involving only 12.5 percent of the federal budget.
Not even repairs to Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare will suffice. “You still can’t get to the point where you get that deficit to level off,” Chambliss said. “That’s complicated, and it’s hard to understand.”
In a tea party climate, “complicated” and “hard to understand” are words that set off all sorts of alarms. Grover Norquist, the anti-tax guru in Washington, fired a warning salvo earlier this month.
How do you argue in favor of raising more tax revenue?
First, you point to national security. In their rebuttal to Norquist, Chambliss and his crew — core membership has grown to six — said their work “affirms the oath we have taken to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, of which our national debt may now be the greatest.”
Chambliss’ friends down in Atlanta agreed. “It’s not just about national security. It’s about national sovereignty, too,” Walker, the former U.S. comptroller, said.
Rivlin had another conversation starter for conservatives.
“You do it in terms of tax reform. We are going to need more revenue. But we have a terrible tax system,” she said. “It’s much too complicated, and has so many loopholes in it, that it has quite high rates. If you get rid of the loopholes, you can lower the rates and still raise more money. Many Republicans, I think, find that attractive.”
Bixby is head of the Concord Coalition, the nonpartisan budget watchdog group underwriting the presentations in Atlanta.
Americans, Bixby said, will have to think differently about the underground spending contained in the federal budget — much of it directed at the middle-class. Take the home mortgage interest deduction — a decades-old tax break favorite meant to encourage home-buyers.
That deduction is one of many likely to be slated for reduction or elimination.
“They are, in effect, entitlement programs run through the tax code. If you begin thinking of them that way, they’re not really tax increases. They’re spending reductions,” Bixby said. “That’s the way you can talk about it.”
Strap yourself in, people. This is what an adult conversation sounds like.
- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider