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Deficit: 100 House votes for shared sacrifice

November 2, 2011 |  4:40 pm

Super committee co-chairmen Rep Jeb Hensarling and Sen Patty Murray
How important is a voting block of 40 Republicans and 60 Democrats in the House? The special committee trying to reduce the federal deficit has the chance to find out, if only they're brave enough to take it.

The group of 100 -- which ranges from freshmen to the chamber's No. 2 Democrat, Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland -- sent a letterWednesday to the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction urging it not to rule out any type of spending cut or revenue increase. For the Republican signatories, that was an implicit rebuke of the pledge (taken by 37 of them) not to do anything Grover Norquist might characterize as a tax increase. For the Democrats, it was an implicit rebuke of the party's refusal to rein in the cost of entitlements by trimming benefits.

The letter also urged the Gang of 12 on the "super committee" to swing for the fences. To stop the debt from growing faster than the economy, Congress has to cut future deficits considerably more than the $1.2 trillion to $1.5 trillion that the committee has been tasked to achieve. The letter calls for $4 trillion, which is in line with the proposals from several other deficit-reduction groups.

As the deficit hawks at the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget have observed, the larger target may be easier to hit. That's because the only way to get there is to sacrifice sacred cows on both sides of the political aisle. Republicans would have to accept a tax overhaul that raised revenue even as it reduced rates (by eliminating most exemptions, deductions, credits and other forms of subsidy in the tax code). Democrats would have to accept Medicare and Medicaid reforms that reduced the value of benefits even as they increased the programs' efficiency. Hawks would have to accept a slimmer military with fewer weapons systems. Doves would have to accept a smaller government with fewer social programs.

The letter from the 100 House members suggests that they'd welcome such an ambitious approach. Even if the Gang of 12 somehow agrees to take all these steps, though, there's still the question of timing. Democrats, backed by Keynesian economists, argue that austerity measures should wait until the economy is stronger. Republicans, backed by the anti-Keynesians of the Austrian School, contend that cutting federal spending is key to reviving the economy.

So there's seemingly no end to the compromises the two sides will have to make. Nearly a quarter of the House, however, has shown it's ready to start.

Here's a telling passage from veteran AP reporter Alan Fram's articleabout the 100 House members' letter:

In an interview, conservative Rep. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., a signer who has had tea party support, said that while she would prefer to reduce the debt without raising taxes, "This is not an ideal world." She said the national debt is a problem both parties have created and must solve, and said she is not "an absolute `hell no' person when it comes to considering all options."

Like all but three of the 40 GOP signatories, Lummis has also signed the pledge by anti-tax activist Grover Norquist to oppose tax increases. Lummis said she did so when she was first elected in 2008, but did not sign it last year.

"Grover Norquist is not in my district," she said. "I represent the state of Wyoming and its people."

RELATED:

Government: Paying for unemployment

The wrong budget analogy

The swirling political pressures on the Gang of 12

Deficit: The right way to talk about tax reform

-- Jon Healey

Photo: "Super committee" co-chairmen Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) at a recent hearing, along with Sen. John Kyl (R-Ariz.). Credit:  Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

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