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Conrad Explains His Bowles-Simpson Gambit

My experience with politicians is that they actually do tell you their plans, if you scrutinize their statements enough. Such is the case with Kent Conrad. He introduces the Bowles-Simpson plan as a baseline today in the Senate Budget Committee. But as he plainly tells Ezra Klein, the goal is not to get a budget resolution. The goal is to create the conditions to pass Bowles-Simpson after the 2012 elections. It’s right here, off the top (emphasis mine):

Ezra Klein: The House took up a version of the Simpson-Bowles plan about two weeks ago. It failed, 382-38. Why should we believe it will do any better in the Senate?

Kent Conrad: I’m hopeful because, as a country, we need to address the fiscal imbalances that we all know are there. This is the only bipartisan plan that has been constructed, other than Domenici-Rivlin, and voted on by members of Congress. It has been followed in large measure by the Group of Six, another bipartisan effort. And it provides, I think, the best building block for confronting the deficit challenges. We also know that at the end of this year we’ll face the end of the Bush tax cuts and the sequester. So we’re moving towards a period in which people are going to have to act.

EK: Have any of your Republican colleagues expressed openness to the legislation?

KC: I’ve heard from some of my Republican colleagues who have called me and said you’re doing exactly what needs to be done but we’re not going to be able to do something like this until after the election. And I think that’s true for many Democrats as well. That’s why I modeled not only the policy after Simpson-Bowles, but the process, too. Simpson-Bowles put the vote of the commission after the 2010 election to try and insulate it from politics as much as possible. That’s what we’re trying to do here by going to mark-up today and laying out the plan but saying clearly that I don’t expect a vote after the election.

I think that last part should read “I don’t expect a vote until after the election.” And if you just make a cursory analysis of what Conrad’s up to, you see the plan here. The “markup” today isn’t really a markup at all, just a compendium of statements and the introduction of Bowles-Simpson as a baseline. Conrad knows that the fiscal cliff in the lame duck session could operate as a forcing mechanism to get legislation that normally wouldn’t be considered. So he’s very explicitly trying to remove accountability for this vote by setting up a process where Bowles-Simpson could be considered after the 2012 elections, when the parties are up against the wall on both the Bush tax cuts and the trigger cuts.

One positive element of Conrad’s plan is that, because he introduced it as a budget resolution, he actually couldn’t include changes to an off-budget program like Social Security. So the increase in the retirement age is gone. But most of the rest remains: the 2:1 ratio between spending cuts and tax increases, the cuts to Medicare, the “magic asterisk” holding health care expenditures to a certain level with no actual policy prescriptions for how to do that. As Conrad says, compared to the expiration of the Bush tax cuts, this is an overall tax cut of $1.8 trillion.

Conrad adds that today’s fake markup will “kick off a conversation and a negotiation that has us ready for what we’re going to face at the end of this year.” Some experts, like Stan Collender, are dismissive that anything of note will happen in the lame duck, and that the can will get kicked down the road again. But you can clearly see that people like Conrad, who is retiring at the end of the year, has a game plan to “move whenever the time comes,” as he puts it. So the deficit hawks are planning. And he who hesitates is lost.

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David Dayen

David Dayen