Budget talks: Another act of tragi-comedy

April 17, 2011 

Speaking of his fellow politicians, as they court one fiscal disaster after another, Max the senator summed things up beautifully when he said, "We're acting like we don't know how to run the country." Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, so he should know.

It's a mighty convincing act in a budget melodrama that seems to never end. It moves from one familiar backdrop to another. The script stays the same, though there are a few variations. Take the horror show over raising the national debt ceiling before it tops out in May — and certainly before it becomes impossible for the U.S. government to borrow any money, probably in July. This time, President Barack Obama has decided to dabble at the role of leading man.

The Republican House and Senate leaders had their reaction to the meeting even before it began. It was more like a taunt, with House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, offering sarcastic congratulations that Obama had "finally decided to engage."

The scene quickly shifted. Obama went to nearby George Washington University, which is appropriate because if the entire national debt was individual dollar bills, we'd see Washington's face more than 14 trillion times.

The Obama outline envisions the elimination of four of those trillions over 12 years.

Two of them would come with spending cuts and one, as he put it, would be agreement to "reduce spending in the tax code." That's his term for higher taxes for the wealthy.

The Republican plan, which comes from Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., the GOP's House Budget Committee chairman, has no tax increase. It claims over 4 trillion dollars in deficit reduction over 10 years.

Obama called for "shared sacrifice" as opposed to "sacrifice from those who can least afford it."

Many in his camp complain that Obama has been too willing to sacrifice his principles, that his words would have more meaning if he meant them. To win them over, he would need to act on principle instead of expedience.

Raise-taxes-on-the-wealthy has been boilerplate Obama for awhile now, but each time his boilerplate turns cold when exposed to the heat of opposition politics. Last year, his party was still in the majority in the House of Representatives. Even so, when it came to a tax hike for those who make more than $250,000 a year, he left a revenue shortfall of $700 billion.

Now Republicans control the House and the tea partiers control the Republicans. Once again, Boehner adamantly insists that any tax hike is a "non-starter." Still, after the White House meeting, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., described a plot where everyone would "deal with what's doable," whatever that means.

We can only hope something is "doable." The stakes are too high for all this suspense. Surely, our performers realize that if they can't perform and reach agreement and raise the debt ceiling, the entire financial structure will come crashing down onto the national stage. They could not possibly allow that to happen. Or could they?

E-mail: bob@hearstdc.com; on the Web: www.bobfranken.tv.

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