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June 2012
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Republicans, Democrats agree on the big issues? Not gonna happen

By RUTH MARCUS Washington Post Writers Group

WASHINGTON - "Blah, blah, blah, blah," said the speaker of the House.

Ohio Republican John Boehner, drawing out the words in a tone of ennui, was speaking about a new tax reform plan, and its comatose-on-arrival prospects.

But the import of Boehner's dismissive words - he's happy to have a "public conversation," loath to engage on the details - extends beyond tax reform. It's hard to imagine a more fitting motto for the second session of the 113th Congress.

To say that lawmakers (a generous term, under the indolent circumstances) are treading water is an insult to swimmers everywhere. A better analogy might be to hibernating grizzlies, except without the eventual fearsomeness.

Having roused themselves just long enough to avoid another government shutdown and avert a catastrophic default on the debt, members of Congress are preparing to lumber back to their dens for the remainder of 2014, stopping only to gorge on enough campaign cash to make it through election season.

Indeed, inaction is a plan that generates the scarcest commodity in Washington these days - bipartisan agreement. Republicans and Democrats have differing priorities but they have reached the same dreary conclusion: not gonna happen.

On the Republican side, the best example is immigration reform. Boehner worked on it, hired an aide (Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain's former top immigration adviser) to help him make it happen, issued a set of principles.

Until, facing yet another revolt in his ranks, Boehner balked, blaming President Obama and Republican's lack of trust in the president's commitment to enforce the laws.

On the Democratic side, the prime example may be fast-track trade promotion authority. Obama wants it, unions hate it, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has declared his opposition.

"Everyone would be well advised just to not push this right now," the Nevada Democrat said. Will the president push? Notably, he didn't mention the issue in a recent appearance before the House Democratic Caucus.

Then there is the bipartisan, please-make-it-stop reaction to House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp's tax reform proposal. "I think we will not be able to finish the job, regretfully," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said even before the plan was unveiled.

Everyone supports making the code simpler and fairer; no one can agree on the details, especially those that gore their own interests.

Thus Sen. Charles Schumer, whose New York constituents pay high state and local taxes, declared Camp's proposal to end the deductibility of those taxes "dead on arrival." Realtors protested both the proposed loss of the state and local tax breaks and curtailing the mortgage interest deduction (to $500,000 from the current $1 million.) Financial interests exploded over a proposed surtax on the largest banks and insurance companies. Democrats complained, rightfully so, that Camp's proposal fails to raise badly needed new revenue.

Indeed, as Jared Bernstein observed in The New York Times, Camp's promise that his plan would not reduce revenue is premised on gimmicks that generate money in the first 10 years (the part subject to budget scoring) and lose it later.

But at least Camp is trying. "We have an obligation to debate the big issues of the day," he said in unveiling the proposal. How quaint.

It's easy - and justified - to bash Congress for its lassitude and recalcitrance. "We've got a Congress that prefers to say 'no' rather than 'yes' right now," Obama told Democratic governors for a White House dinner last week.

But blame can also fairly be apportioned at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. Consider Obama's decision to drop from the soon-to-be released budget his proposal for switching to a new measure to calculate increases in Social Security cost-of-living adjustments - a change that would, by the way, raise billions in new tax revenue, and is included in the Camp proposal.

White House officials defend Obama's move as a logical response to Republicans' refusal to meet him halfway on raising new tax revenue; he'd be willing to revive it if only the other side showed some flexibility. But Social Security isn't going to fix itself. The program needs to be put on a sustainable footing - and doing so sooner rather than later will protect those most in need of generous benefits.

Camp talks of debating the big issues but that's not how modern Washington operates. Too often, it follows the Boehner principle: blah, blah, blah, blah. Why bother wrestling with the hard stuff, when it's not going to happen?

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