Outside editorial: Signs of bipartisanship in the federal budget debate

Posted: Thursday, December 09, 2010

The following editorial appeared in the Kansas City Star:

A solid majority of President Barack Obama's 18-member, bipartisan debt commission has endorsed a far-reaching plan for repairing the government's financial position. But the 11 "yes" votes fell short of the 14 needed to induce timely action by Congress.

While that's the headline on the commission's work, that bare reading of the facts doesn't capture the remarkable change that's taken place the last few weeks.

Leading figures from both political parties, mindful of the debt crisis sweeping Europe, in effect agree it's time to start goring a few sacred cows. The atmosphere in Washington, poisoned for so long, may well be clearing.

Lobbies from both ends of the political spectrum are issuing ominous threats to their allies, but that's to be expected. There's a sense that key figures finally understand that the status quo can no longer hold, that business as usual would lead to fiscal disaster.

The commission's plan would use tax increases and spending cuts to carve $4 trillion from expected spending over the next 10 years.

Among the proposals that require decisions - not just endless debate - by Congress:

• A reasonable slowdown of benefit increases in Social Security combined with a gradual increase in the retirement age to 69, plus higher payroll taxes for wealthier taxpayers.

• Lower income-tax and corporate-tax rates in exchange for a broader base.

• Elimination or cutbacks in popular deductions for mortgage interest, health care costs claimed by employers and the child tax credit.

• A sensible 15-cent increase in the federal fuel tax.

Spending by most domestic agencies would be pared, and the Pentagon's budget would be frozen. The plan protected much of the 2010 health care bill, but critics said it fell short in curtailing the growth of Medicare and Medicaid.

Significantly, the package drew support from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, including Republican senators Mike Crapo of Idaho and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, and Democratic senators Kent Conrad of North Dakota and Dick Durbin of Illinois.

The president's commission wasn't the only group working recently to propose solutions.

A separate panel led by former Republican senator Pete Domenici of New Mexico, a Republican, and Alice Rivlin, President Bill Clinton's budget director, endorsed a dramatic plan to restrain the growth of health care costs.

Their proposal would turn Medicare into a "premium support" program for future enrollees, who would use government support to purchase policies. The panel would also cap the employer deduction for health insurance and phase it out slowly.

The budget debate, frozen for so long, is opening up. Alternatives that would have been shouted down only a few months ago are getting a hearing.

True, it's far from clear Congress is ready to seriously address our fiscal problems, but the change in tone is welcome. In the coming months, it's possible to believe that our perpetually bickering lawgivers might do something constructive.

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