Stories by Steve Bell

Steve Bell is former Staff Director of the Senate Budget Committee, a former managing director at Salomon Brothers, and now Senior Director on Economic Policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, D.C.

Congress Passes the Buck on Budget Cuts

February 25th, 2011 at 12:04 am 16 Comments

The House passed a version of the Fiscal Year 2011 Continuing Resolution (CR) for Appropriations last week.  The House GOP leadership allowed an open and free debate, thumb realizing that such a week-long discussion would make newer members feel part of the team.

In addition, click the open rule allowed a critical “venting” for left and right.  Speaker John Boehner deserves great credit for requesting an open rule and then allowing the debate to run its course.  He may well find future rewards from his newest colleagues since he treated them as equals and gave them equal opportunity.

Now the Senate must confront the CR debate and the reality of the House’s work.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has announced that the Senate will produce a bill that saves $41 billion.  The House-passed CR yielded $61 billion in cuts.  Optimists see those two sets of numbers and immediately say, “Split the difference, get a year-long CR and let’s start the debt ceiling fight.”

The more cynical among observers react the way that Glenn Kessler did in his Washington Post blog Thursday morning.  They look closely at the $41 billion in Senate cuts and notice some interesting gimmicks.  They also look closely at the House’s claimed $61 billion and notice similar gimmicks.

Two questions emerge from this legerdemain: will Tea Party House Republicans notice the gimmicks and will they hold their noses and vote for a compromise CR conference report that yields, voila, $51 billion in savings?  I suspect they will and demand more “real cuts” as part of the debt ceiling increase debate.

Both House and Senate leaders had little choice but to fudge the numbers.  With five months of FY11 already behind us, finding real cuts from current policy spending that would yield $50 billion, let alone the $100 billion originally promised to the GOP right, proved arithmetically impossible, as we have written often before.

It became even more unlikely when both chambers chose to put “security-related” appropriations bills off limits to cuts.  In short, about 12-13 per cent of the federal budget bears 100 per cent of the proposed deficit reduction.

As a political cost-benefit analysis, one over-riding question pops up:  why are Members cutting so deeply into programs like cancer research, education and training and infrastructure — programs most Americans think critical to future economic growth — in order to gain a trivial amount of debt reduction.  Maximum pain for minimal gain strikes me about as wise as buying stocks high and selling them low.  One doesn’t last long with either strategy.

To meander a bit, has anyone else noted the irony that courageous citizens in North Africa are dying in the streets in order to achieve democracy, while the democracy that the United States enjoys yields a Congress that cannot conjure up the courage to truly cut the entitlement structure that yields crushing future debt.

Of course, many in the nation’s capital argue that the debt disaster will happen in five to ten years and by then someone else will hold office and it will be their problem—minimal Congressional pain today, no national gain tomorrow.

North Africans dodge bullets; Congress dodges responsibility.


Obama & GOP Budgets On a Collision Course

February 16th, 2011 at 2:56 pm 17 Comments

An old, sovaldi old drama begins its annual replay with the release yesterday of a Statement of Administration Policy (SAP) that President Obama would veto the Continuing Resolution for FY2011 appropriations now under consideration on the House floor.

Dramatic?  Unprecedented?  Unpredictable?

No, just the curtain raiser on what will probably be a two-year long battle between the president and House Republicans.

House Republicans’ actions fulfill promises made by most of them last November: cutting spending, shrinking government, increasing efficiency—all perennial and noble themes.  The first victim through the door just happens to be the Continuing Resolution.  Early attempts to slim the CR down failed after most House Republicans objected to what they believe was a failure to act vigorously to cut spending.

As we have written before, nothing the House does on the CR will become law.  Senate passage of a House-passed CR that cuts tens of billions from current year spending remains improbable.  The Administration’s threats of a presidential veto allow the president to side with the victims of House-proposed program eliminations.  In short, the SAP stands as a “base-booster” for the president.

What usually happens in these cases?

This isn’t hard to predict, except for the important part—how far and hard will the House GOP push?

Recent history is clear—House passes CR, Senate passes a CR with different policies, leaders from both sides meet and agree to pass a compromise CR.  President signs.  Impacts on the deficit are negligible and the world continues spinning on its axis.

The scenario that has political observers, and many in financial markets, concerned is this one—House passes CR, Senate passes CR profoundly different than the House, conferees cannot reach agreement on a compromise…then what.

The Paul (Ron and Rand) wing of the Republican Party says, “No compromise and let the government shut down for a few days so that Americans can see that the world won’t end by doing so.”

The John Boehner group within the party says, “No, we went through that in 1995 and all it did was help re-elect Clinton.  No shutdown.”

At least a 40 percent chance exists that for a day or two the government will have to “shut down” because the CR at some point during the next 6 months does expire.

While a government shutdown for a day or two might have minor real consequences, the psychological damage might be greater.  Psychology is as important as fundamentals in world markets, perhaps more so.  If the psychology becomes, “Hey these guys really are irresponsible,” markets could flee American debt more quickly than most observers predict.

The difference between 1995 and now, obviously, is that projected deficits are an entire order of magnitude higher now, and markets are already in hair-trigger mode because of financial and debt uncertainties afflicting Europe and political tremors in the Middle East.

One may go back in history and find a less propitious moment to shake market confidence, and the confidence of the American public…but I doubt it.

Lurking in the background is the battle over raising the debt ceiling this summer.  Confluence of the CR fight and the debt war seems likely now.  At that point, no one can predict outcomes.

So, while the first three or four acts of the drama may resemble the same old script, a surprise, a very unpleasant surprise could occur in the final scene.


Obama and GOP Punt
on Deficit Cuts

February 14th, 2011 at 11:46 am 45 Comments

Pathetic.

Both the President’s budget submission today and the House Republican approach to deficit reduction fail to achieve even a modicum of debt stabilization, either in the short run or the long run.

The famed economic historian, Niall Ferguson, said late last year in a major lecture, “Alarm bells should be ringing right now in Washington, D.C.”  His lecture, concentrating on the relationship of failed empires to fiscal irresponsibility, should be played to every member of Congress and to the President.  Clearly, if those alarm bells are ringing, official Washington is deaf.

Sadly, when Ferguson was invited to Washington last year to discuss the dangers of America’s debt, only three Members of Congress attended the event.

We hear a number of excuses for the timid reaction of both Congress and the President.  Let’s look at these “explanations.”

First, neither side wants to “go first” in true debt reduction.

Second, the American public doesn’t understand the nature of federal spending and needs education.

Third, it’s too early in the year and the debt ceiling increase battle will force serious debt and deficit cutting.

Fourth, without Presidential leadership nothing can be achieved.

Let’s look more closely at these four excuses.

First, this isn’t a game like poker.  It’s serious business.  The notion that neither side wants to reveal their hand assumes that both sides are, secretly, really serious about fiscal balance.  A more experienced view is that both sides are playing a public relations game so that if the mess hits the fan, they cannot be blamed.

Second, Americans understand the problem.  Government has promised too much during the past 40 years and now doesn’t have the money to meet those promises.  Like Greece, Italy, Ireland, Portugal, Spain and other developed economies, America’s fiscal problems come down to the same old things:  medical care, pensions, clumsy tax codes, and demographics.

Third, it may be early in the year, but it’s getting late for action.  If Congress and the President do what most astute observers suspect– a series of Continuing Resolutions through this year, a debt ceiling battle that will be characterized more by “process reform” than fiscal reform, and deficits continuing to breach the annual $1 trillion mark–then America will have indeed achieved the grand heights of the PIIGS:  debt at more than 100 per cent of GDP, heading for 200 per cent.

Fourth, waiting for someone to lead indicts this entire generation of federal politicians.  Rep. Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, has floated at least two major, comprehensive debt and deficit reduction plans.  It remains noteworthy that almost no one who is in elective office has bothered to endorse the Ryan plan.  When your colleagues begin to move away from you, as though you had a dreaded disease, it’s a sign they you wish you weren’t around.

The President’s budget will “cut” $1.1 trillion during the next 10 years from projected deficits.  That’s just dandy–it represents a trivial effort since total deficits the next decade will certainly approach if not exceed $10 trillion.

Republican plans, except for Ryan’s, play in the same ball park.  With full implementation of a CR for FY11 that really does cut $100 billion in outlays from current year spending, the FY11 deficit still reaches $1.4 trillion and the impact over the next 10 years basically mirrors the impact of the President’s budget submission–that is to say, almost nothing.

Sadly, national politicians can “kick the can down the road,” as the most recent cliché has it.  Bond markets seem unlikely to react negatively as long as Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke remains the buyer of last resort of public debt.

When that unnatural state of affairs ends–and no one knows when “the end” appears–the bond markets will begin to demand much higher interest rates when they take on the debt of a nation that has allowed interest payments on its debt to exceed annual spending on national defense.

Bond markets don’t care about words.  They don’t care about the size of your hat–they want to know how much cattle you have.

Right now, America’s pastures look pretty empty; but, we have pretty hats on.


Will GOP Caucus Revolt Over Boehner’s Budget?

February 12th, 2011 at 11:46 am 16 Comments

The cracks within the Republican House caucus hit the headlines this past week with a crescendo.  A tiny crack began with the failure of the House to pass under suspension an extension of the Patriot Act.  The crack widened with the failure of the House to pass legislation demanding that the United Nations pay us back excess money the U.S. had sent it.

House leadership then pulled trade legislation it had intended to bring to the floor when it appeared that the legislation would be rejected by renegade Republicans–making it three for three in disappointments.

The cracks became real fissures though when the long-feared reality of budget arithmetic dawned on the fiscal hawks in the party.  As we predicted long ago, finding $100 billion in real deficit reduction cuts in the FY11 Continuing Resolution would prove improbable, despite promises by most Republicans that they would achieve that goal.

Now rebellion looms and on a subject much more central to Republican themes than the Patriot Act: the question of smaller government and dramatic cuts in the impending $1 trillion plus deficits.

Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers has been ordered to go back to his committee and find another $40-$50 billion in cuts from the C.R.  Already several gimmicks in accounting emerge from what the committee has already produced.  For example, cuts from President Obama’s proposed budget, which was never enacted, are counted as reductions from spending, although those Obama increases are not part of the deficit problem and are not in the CR spending levels.

As the true relatively small amounts of real deficit-reduction cuts from the CR levels become evident, expect anger on the right to rise.  Already Sen. Jim DeMint and 10 of his compatriots have sent a letter to the House GOP leadership demanding that the House find real cuts of at least $100 billion from the Continuing Resolution.

The upshot of this completely predictable scenario will be further loss of confidence in the GOP leadership in the House.  We noted last month that one of the three most difficult jobs in Washington, D.C., belonged to Speaker John Boehner.  As the fissures potentially widen into canyons, Boehner will continue to be caught between the reality of budget arithmetic and the unrealistic expectations of his caucus.

Ironically, none of this is Boehner’s fault.  Even the most casual observer of the federal budget knew that the exaggerated campaign promises of November would succumb to February’s cold fiscal facts.

And, the harshest of these facts is this–with annual budgets of more than $1 trillion baked in the fiscal cake, all of this hollering over a mere $100 billion seems almost ludicrous.  Just think what screams would accompany a real effort to get federal spending under control–”oh, no, not Medicare and Social Security.”

Welcome to reality.


Do We Really Have a Civility Shortage?

February 1st, 2011 at 2:58 pm 35 Comments

“Civility” now tops the charts as the word of the year in Washington, D.C.

Its ascendance owes much to the media coverage of Congress and its “relationship” to the White House the past two years.

Accordingly, we can read blogs, newspapers, and magazines like The Economist, all urging a “return to civility” in American politics. Senators intone about how the filibuster has ruined the civil dialogue of the Senate.  The House decided that members of the two parties would sit next to each other during the State of the Union.  Clearly, one might gather, America faces a civil breakdown of high order, if all the anguish represents anything.

From what planet did these folks come?

Riots plague France over pensions, Great Britain over tuition increases, Iraq over religion, Egypt over power, Tunisia over economics, and Greece and almost every nation in Africa over almost everything… yet, the Western media have the time to lament a lack of civility in American politics.

An observation of the past four decades reveals a few important points:

a. Few nations fight as noisily and politically over tinier basic differences as America does.

b.  As a corollary, the philosophical differences between politicians in America occupy a very narrow spectrum of differences compared to political divergences in other nations.

c.  It is this very narrow range of our views, indeed, that causes the uproar — everyone is trying to pretend that he (or she) deserves election because of “stark differences” between them and their opponent.

d. ”Stark differences” usually mean such trivialities as 10 per cent more education spending through Pell Grants than through students loans, or 3,000 more acres of wilderness versus 10,000 more acres.

e.  On the big subjects — capitalism, free education for all, equality along gender, race, and religious lines, aid to the poor, support for research into medicine and physics and math, and a progressive tax system — about 95 per cent of members of Congress agree with each other.

f.  But, in a world with a 24-hour media starved for “news,” people get attention almost always only to the extent that they represent idiosyncrasies or exaggerations.

g.  If one wishes to see “uncivil” debate, or no debate at all, go almost anywhere else on the globe.

Of the 6 billion or so folks on earth, it is much less than a billion that enjoy such common civilities as Americans do.  And those very civilities carry over, for the most part, into political debate.

Yes, we have the tragedy of disturbed people carrying out horrendous crimes, although very rarely in the name of national politics.  What we don’t have is troops in city streets, government crackdowns on communications, and forced movement of whole peoples (in the names of such things as new dams) tribal disputes, or an entire gender that faces severe restrictions – and sometimes mutilation – in the name of traditional culture.

My suggestion: stop worrying about the civility of political debate in America and start working on job creation and the soaring and potentially disastrous federal debt.  I suspect that both those agenda items would be in better shape if, in the past, our congressional debates had been, indeed, less civil.


CBO Report Ramps Up Budget Battle

January 31st, 2011 at 2:42 pm 35 Comments

The release last week of new deficit and debt figures for the federal government confirmed what most analysts expected, but not what many Members of Congress anticipated.

The Congressional Budget Office projection of $1.5 trillion in deficit for the current fiscal year, FY11, and forecasts of $1 trillion for FY12 put the Republican House, especially, in a bind.

Simple arithmetic has already revealed to even the most ardent of deficit warriors that the $100 billion in cuts they want in the current fiscal year cannot occur.  The fact that leadership has had to deliver this message means that Speaker John Boehner and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan have to offer a plan of truly large spending cuts in the near future in order to keep their caucus from fracture.

At stake, of course, is passage of the necessary increase in the federal debt ceiling.  That ceiling is now $14.29 trillion, a number that surely will require a vote by spring.  Without a concrete plan to save $100 billion this year, House leadership must concoct a combination of “process reforms” and spending cutbacks.

The House intends to take up the current fiscal year continuing resolution Feb. 14, two weeks ahead of the scheduled expiration of the CR, although what an early vote accomplishes is unclear.  The Senate will hum and haw before it passes the CR and a conference between the competing visions of the House Republican conferees and the Senate Democratic conferees fundamentally conflict.

Rumblings of a government shutdown over the CR, or over an increase in the debt ceiling grow louder.  Among budget analysts, a growing consensus anticipates no concrete deficit/debt plan during the next 2 years, in large part because the president has so far been unwilling to outline even the sketch of a multi-year approach.

Criticism of the president from the editorial and economics writers of the Washington Post, New York, Times, Financial Times, and The Economist falls on deaf ears.  After all, the folks who read those publications comprise a tiny minority of voters–most of whom consider job creation much more imperative than deficit reduction.

Thus a classic confrontation develops–the two great four-letter words in Washington, D.C., “jobs” and “debt” battle it out.  History shows conclusively that jobs almost always wins.

If that is the outcome of the battle this time, then congressional Republicans, and Tea Party grassroots activists’ anger will explode in a form not yet predictable.


Lame Duck Senate Goes on an Earmark Spree

December 15th, 2010 at 12:23 pm 8 Comments

Did the November elections really happen?  Did Americans, buy cialis in fact, vote for smaller deficits, smaller government, and fiscal restraint?

This was the question Sen. John McCain posed this morning, as the Senate began the task of trying to pass an Omnibus Appropriations Bill for FY11.  It’s a good question.

Even by recent standards this Senate action seems slightly lunatic.  No budget resolution for FY11 passed either body this year.  Not a single appropriations bill was debated on the Senate floor and many were never considered by the relevant sub-committee.  Almost no one except a few senior Senate staffers knows what is in the 2,000 page document.  Estimates put the number of earmarks at more than 6,000 and costing some $8 billion.  Stuck in the bill is a vast expansion of wilderness in Montana, a clear violation of the Senate rules that prohibit putting authorization bills on appropriations.

And, yet, many observers believe that the Omnibus could pass.

The House, in an act of almost monastic purity, passed a Continuing Resolution (CR) for FY11.  Yes, it contains an irrelevant food safety bill, and yes it is more expensive than its proponents admit to.  But, the bill at least attempts to keep spending at current policy levels.  The Senate bill has no such underlying logic—it is truly “the last earmark train coming down the tracks.”

If only for amusement’s sake, it might be nice to watch a House-Senate conference between the House CR and the Senate Omnibus.  Confusion fails as a word to describe such a conference.

Some sophisticated types believe that this entire thing is a plot by Republicans.  These cynics argue that the GOP really wants everything to dissolve into chaos.  This would then lead to a short-term CR expiring, let’s say, in February.  This would give Republicans in the House a chance to then work their tender mercies on FY11 spending through amendment and/or rescission.

If the Senate continues down the path it seems to have chosen, then the GOP will get an early chance next year to validate the notion that elections really did happen in November and those elections have consequences.  For the sake of deficit reduction, one hopes this will be the outcome.  For the sake of cool discussion of budget priorities and fiscal prudence, one hopes that the House CR will prevail and the present Congress gets out of town as soon as possible.

Obama’s Tax Deal: Straight from Clinton’s Playbook

December 7th, 2010 at 10:39 pm 22 Comments

To the utter dismay of his “progressive wing, and ” President Obama has engineered a comprehensive deal on Bush tax cuts, thumb the estate tax issue and other extenders, and a 2% reduction in payroll taxes for the next calendar year.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi recognizes what has happened.  Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont recognizes it as well.  It’s called triangulation, the technique Bill Clinton used masterfully.

Against the opposition of his own party, and the vocal opposition of his wife, Clinton decided to push for and eventually sign into law a comprehensive welfare reform bill.  Republicans provided the votes for final congressional passage.

Clinton’s presidency revived in part because of the welfare deal.  He went on to re-election.

With 9.8% unemployment, and the U-6 unemployment rate at about 17%, Obama did what he had to do:  get 13 months extension of unemployment insurance, a 2% payroll tax cut, continuation of the earned income tax credit and expanded child care credit, and 100 per cent expensing for business investment.  And he did it all at the cost of merely giving Bush tax cuts to the wealthy for two years.

If Obama’s actions spur consumer spending and help small businesses begin to recover once again, unemployment might decline much more rapidly than most economists now predict.  If that happens, paint Barack Obama as really back in the game for 2012.

Triangulation has been turned into a dirty word by zealots on the left and right of the political spectrum.  In the old days, such actions were called compromises for the sake of the country.  Long live triangulation!

McConnell Sets a Budget Trap for the Dems

November 19th, 2010 at 2:52 pm 12 Comments

Most analysts and senior staff on the Hill expected the Republican leadership in both Chambers to do all it could to prevent an omnibus appropriations bill for FY2011.  That battle has begun, sales as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has joined with House Leader John Boehner in opposition to an omnibus.

Let’s make a distinction here, unhealthy with a big difference.

An Omnibus Appropriations bill incorporates the 12 individual appropriations bill for the upcoming fiscal year.  Each of those 12, however, are the result of negotiations among the appropriators and leadership.  That means that many of those 12 can be funded at higher spending levels than in the previous fiscal year.

A Continuing Resolution (CR) for Appropriations, by contrast, incorporates all 12 spending items, but caps appropriations for each and every one of them at “current levels.”  That means, if Republicans stick to their guns, that this year’s CR spending level will be frozen at last year’s levels, without incorporating last year’s stimulus spending.  Thus, if successful, Republicans will be able to start the 112th Congress having already slightly reduced anticipated spending and having succeeded in, de facto, banning almost all earmarks.

If Republicans are able to succeed in capping new spending until February, a logical date for a new CR to expire, then House Republicans will be able to start on their announced agenda:  de-funding Obamacare, which requires substantial new monies; threatening the Environmental Protection Agency with reduced spending if the EPA begins to really crack down on CO2 emissions through regulation; and trying to eliminate duplicative programs.

One strategy, often whispered about these days, is to pass an Omnibus (in the House) and a CR (in the Senate), attach a large tax bill to the resulting conference report and get out of town.  Sounds easy, but that’s a heavy load.

For months, observers have wondered how anything other than the CR, something on taxes and the Medicare Docs’ Fix could ever emerge from this chaotic Lame Duck.

Wonder no longer—not much else of substance can pass—not New Start, not the Defense Authorization Bill, and possibly not even an extension of the 99 weeks of unemployment insurance that expires.

The 112th Congress will be great entertainment, as Republicans set the spending and taxing agenda in the House, and the Democratic Senate leadership tries to herd  a very nervous 23 incumbents (who are up for re-election in 2012) along a path forged by the White House.

Thus, elections have consequences still.  Will the president challenge the new congressional order, or will he forge compromise on spending and taxes?  The consequences for his party’s prospects in 2012 remain enormous.

OK, Big Deficit Talkers: It’s Time to Pick a Plan

November 18th, 2010 at 1:10 pm 41 Comments

Yesterday, the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Debt Task Force, a year-long fiscal reform effort headed by former Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete Domenici and former OMB Director and Vice Chair of the Federal Reserve, Alice Rivlin, hit the media.

So far, not a single elected politician in Congress, has endorsed the plan.  The Domenici-Rivlin plan now joins the initiative by Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, and the draft fiscal plan presented by former Sen. Alan Simpson and former White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles, as real deficit reduction plans that have become radioactive.

Why?  Didn’t many of the voters, especially Tea Party activists, demand budget cuts and smaller deficits earlier this month on Election Day?  Didn’t we hear from candidates of both parties, but especially the Republican hopefuls, that cutting government spending was Job 1?

Ah, that was merely talk, it seems.  Come January many of the loudest campaign trail voices will be strangely muted.  We will hear, “what we meant was we wanted to cut waste and abuse, and we will get rid of earmarks in spending bills. That’s what we meant, not cuts to Medicare or Social Security and certainly no cuts to defense or increases in taxes.”

In budget speak, we refer to that as “numerical amnesia.”  It especially afflicts people who have no notion of what the federal budget funds.

Too many in Congress forget what spending the federal budget truly contains.  We pay 84 per cent of the budget to interest on the public debt, Medicare and Medicaid and other health entitlements, Social Security and other pensions, and subsidies to sectors of the economy such as agriculture and energy. All of the rest of the budget–all health research, law enforcement, national security, and education–compromise only about 16 per cent of the budget.

In short, one could–tomorrow–shut down every activity of the federal government except the entitlements listed above, and not balance this year’s budget. Every single activity, firing every person involved in those activities.

It’s simple arithmetic, then. Real debt reduction takes real courage.  Or as Bill Russell used to say to rookies after he had blocked their shot into the fifth row of seats, “Welcome to the NBA.”

What the Domenici-Rivlin proposes is as follows:

a.  Create a “Social Security tax holiday” for one year, allowing both employees and employers to save approximately $640 billion in taxes and create, as the Congressional Budget Office estimates, more than 2.5 million new jobs.

b.  Balance the primary budget by FY2014 and stabilize the national debt at 60 per cent of Gross Domestic Product by FY2020.

c.  Cut individual and corporate income tax rates, eliminate almost all tax loopholes in current law, increase child care and low income tax benefits, and establish a National Debt Reduction Sales Tax of 6.5 per cent.

d.  Reform Medicare and Medicaid to save tens of trillions of dollars during the next 30 years.

e.  Make Social Security solvent for 75 years.

f.  Freeze domestic and discretionary appropriated programs for 4 and 5 years, respectively.

g.  Cut other pensions and subsidies, like farm subsidies and government retirement programs.

Notably, it was recommended unanimously by a bi-partisan group of 19 former mayors, governors, two former Secretaries of Commerce, and a host of very experienced budget experts.  Every participant from former New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial to former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, endorsed the plan.

The President’s fiscal commission, headed by Simpson and Bowles, has been meeting in private now for several days.  It has until Dec. 1, less than two weeks from now, to make formal recommendations to the President.  Many doubt that the commission can get the necessary 14 votes (out of 18 members) to recommend anything like either the Domenici-Rivlin plan or the outline presented by Simpson and Bowles.

No doubt hundreds of interest groups right now have begun letter-writing campaigns against all such comprehensive plans.

Members of the 112th Congress will be bombarded by emails, letters, and tweets, warning of dire electoral consequences if their Member of Congress dares vote for such things.

Undergirding that reality is a recent Wall Street Journal poll showing that among the most vocal opponents of any comprehensive deficit reduction plan are voters who identify themselves as Republicans or Independents.

So, as the slogan goes, “Be careful what you wish for, you may get it.”

For all those who talked ad infinitum about their devotion to fiscal restraint and lower debt, welcome to the big leagues.  You have been able to talk on the campaign trail; now you have to vote in Congress.

The only hope for any of these comprehensive plans is the hard fact that in early spring the Congress will have to vote to increase the federal debt limit.  Lots of folks have already said they will not, under any circumstance, vote for such an increase.

Of course, they will vote for one.  The only question is what kinds of fiscal restraint amendments will be necessary to get 218 votes in the House and 60 votes in the Senate.

Maybe a plan like that of Domenici and Rivlin or Simpson and Bowles will then become more palatable.