Don't let the super committee fail
September 17th, 2011
09:47 AM ET

Don't let the super committee fail

Michael E. O'Hanlon

Editor's Note: Michael O’Hanlon specializes in national security and defense policy and is senior author of the IraqAfghanistan, and Pakistan Index projects. You can read more from him on the Global Public Square.

By Michael O'Hanlon - Special to CNN

With President Obama’s expected unveiling of a detailed deficit reduction plan this upcoming week, aimed to influence and cajole the super committee, which must report with its proposal by November 23, the debate about how to reduce our huge fiscal overhang is about to get intense again.

President Obama can be expected to put forth a balanced approach for cutting $1.5 trillion in government spending, with a mix of tax increases and spending cuts in most discretionary parts of the government budget as well as some aspects of Medicaid and Medicare. Most likely, any tax increases the president proposes, relative to the current Bush-era tax rates due to expire at the end of next year, will focus on just higher-income earners.

This will be a reasonable plan. But if the super committee goes a different direction, and its 6 Republicans adamantly oppose any talk of any tax increases whatsoever (or, more accurately, any suggestion that Bush tax cuts not be extended), there is a better approach for Democrats than to simply vote it down and allow sequestration to kick in. They should take whatever package of balanced spending cuts is possible to achieve this year, approve it, and then let the 2012 campaign be a referendum on what to do next.

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Sequestration would be a bad idea because it would devastate national security as well as key domestic investments funded within the so-called domestic discretionary accounts. Both these areas of spending would be targeted for disproportionate cuts if the super committee is unable to forge a deal or if Congress is unwilling to pass whatever deal it comes up with. Among other things, defense cuts could then approach $1 trillion over ten years with precipitous cuts beginning in 2013. This would require the nation to make unpalatable and indeed unwise choices, like whether to maintain its strong defenses in the Persian Gulf or the Western Pacific Ocean, because it will no longer be possible to do both well, even as Iran intimidates and China rises.

Many Democrats, myself included, would find it unreasonable of Republicans to refuse to include any revenue increases in a budget deal this fall. Given that tax rates are historically quite low today - lower than at most periods of Reagan’s presidency, lower than during Clinton’s time in office - there is a very reasonable case to go back to 1990s rates until we can reform the tax code (ideally reducing exemptions in the process, and possibly adding an energy or a value-added consumption tax too, thereby permitting lower income tax rates to go with increased revenues). Globalization, automation, and other innovation have continued to help the wealthy of this country disproportionately and it is only right that upper-income Americans pay a bit more in taxes.

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But if the GOP refuses this argument in the fall, smart political tactics would not be to have Democrats fall on their swords and block a deal. Not only would the resulting sequestration jeopardize crucial federal programs and investments, but the resulting standoff would sour Americans even more on their current government - and jeopardize the economy even more, in both the short term and the long term.

The better strategy would pocket whatever balanced deal is available, including some entitlement reductions and even some social security reforms. Everyone could then acknowledge that more deficit reduction work needed to be done and the two parties could fashion their proposals for next steps and ask the voters to help the nation choose via the 2012 elections. Democrats would presumably suggest that some tax increases would be preferable to further deep cuts in discretionary accounts or big reductions in entitlements. Republicans would likely continue to oppose any tax increases and perhaps bring out a modified version of the Ryan Plan as their vision for the future. Ideally, both parties would also lay out ideas on tax reform, not just on income tax rates.

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There is no reason such an approach should work strongly for or against either party. It would be a straightforward choice for the American people, easy enough to explain and campaign on, honest and constructive in its character, and in the best traditions of democracy. And any politician truly confident in his or her views on fiscal policy, national investments and taxes should be unafraid to ask the voter for a verdict.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Michael O'Hanlon.

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Topics: Debt Crisis • Economy • Politics • United States

soundoff (193 Responses)
  1. Marge

    I think this super congress idea was the most stupid ever. It just shows how silly this republican congress is. the only reason they wanted this so called super congress is so they could cut more deeply into the funding for any thing middle class and make sure the rich got more and more tax cuts. DO THEY THINK WE ARE AS STUPID AS HADES. No way out they go in 2012.

    September 19, 2011 at 12:07 pm | Reply
  2. AngryVote

    Where I don't agree with everything that Michael O'Hanlon states, I like the overall idea behind it. If the committee stalls, we will all watch the market and the economy be pulled out from beneath all of the American people. The few places I would make changes that would require both parties to give a little. Those ideas are (think balanced approach): 1) Require that the bush tax cuts expire; 2) Require that tax reform must start by the beginning of 2012 (I don't think anyone, rich or not, believes that the current system if fair); and 3) Require spending be cut back to 2008 levels (spending has increased by over 24% in the last 2 years – we must reduce what the government spends). This should not be cast as "TAX THE WEALTHY", nor should it be cast as "NEW TAX CUTS". The Republicans must give on the Bush Tax cuts and the Democrates must give on our spending levels. The key is the tax reform. The current system is soooooo unfair on all fronts. I believe this could initially be done as a revenue neutral change with future revenue increase coming from new gians through future growth and collections from reduced loopholes. This would add stability for those who want to move on and start achieving their goal of increasing their wealth and standard of living.

    September 19, 2011 at 12:14 pm | Reply
  3. Talgrath

    $1 trillion in defense spending cuts sounds fine to me; get out of Iraq, Afghanistan and the middle east in general and let the chips fall where they may, there's no surer path to the defeat of Al-qaeda and similar organizations than no longer having the USA to blame.

    September 19, 2011 at 12:25 pm | Reply
  4. Howard

    People who say they will always support Obama, not matter what, are traitors to America.
    America is MORE important than Obama.
    A President should only receive continued support, based on his performance ... and,
    Obama's performance has run America's economy into the ground.

    September 19, 2011 at 1:32 pm | Reply
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