For those Americans living in a Fear and Loathing-style drug binge for the past week, the government is currently shut down and the Treasury will no longer be paying off America’s debts around October 17. Republicans and Democrats have both been pumping out talking points. The Democrats and Obama are pointing out that bargaining over the debt ceiling is crazy, while Republicans are complaining that the Democrats are refusing to negotiate. They even published a picture of them all sitting at a table “waiting to negotiate.” So, is it true? Has Obama refused to compromise? Well, there have actually been a few “deals” over the past few years.
The chart below (created with CBO data) shows all the deficit reduction that happened during the budget cage-match. Remember that broadly speaking, Republicans prefer spending cuts while Democrats prefer revenue increases (obviously, there are caveats, but let’s keep this simple). So who has won? Unequivocally it’s been the Republicans. They’ve gained about $1.7 trillion in spending cuts (to both discretionary and mandatory spending), while Democrats have gotten only $650 billion in revenue increases.
The president came to the table offering entitlement reform in return for tax increases. So, what did the Republicans say? Bob Woodward’s The Price of Politics is the definitive account of the deficit brawls in Obama’s first term (which are eerily similar to the debate right now, with a small faction in the Republican Party prepared to default on the debt). It’s a long book, but one quote will suffice to explain the Republican style of negotiation. It comes during the Biden Senate committee, one of the many attempts to put Republicans and Democrats in a room that eventually failed. Senator Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) asked, “You're saying to me even though there are Medicare savings that you think are reasonable — that we could do— you won’t do them unless we’re going to raise taxes on somebody?” Yes Jon, that’s how “negotiating” works. In Kyl's world, Republicans get Medicare cuts and Democrats get, well… this.
But what’s worse is that Kyl wasn't standing up for the average Joe here. This round of debates featured in Woodward's book was largely over whether to extend the Bush tax cuts for those earning more than 10 times the poverty line. The Republicans wanted to keep those cuts intact, so in essence, Kyl wanted lower spending on health care for millions of seniors and lower taxes for the richest 10% of so of Americans. All of this while U.S. tax revenue as a percentage of GDP is far below the OECD average. Obama is happy to negotiate. If Republicans want to prove that they are, it will take more than a photo-op— it will take concessions.