The Deficit Commission and Political Courage

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Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

A vote from the eighteen-member deficit-reduction commission will fall short today of a necessary fourteen-vote consensus. President Obama promised to back any plan that garnered fourteen votes, and Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi promised to put the plan up for a vote. But as it stands, only twelve members at most are expected to vote for it.

The main reason that reducing the deficit is so hard is not because nobody can figure out how, but because doing it requires politicians to do unpopular things. Polls show that the panel's recommendations — which include cuts to Medicare, Social Security, and defense, raising the Social Security retirement age, and some tax increases — are opposed by clear majorities of voters. For the sitting lawmakers on the commission — there are also five former lawmakers and other nonelected officials — this means that a bit of political courage is in order, and, frankly, most of them don't have it. There's a reason that five of six commission members who don't serve in Congress will vote for the plan, the lone holdout being Andy Stern, former head of the Service Employees International Union.

Even the senators and congressmen who are expected to vote for the plan don't need to summon much political courage. Illinois Democratic senator Dick Durbin won his last election, in 2008, by 39 points, and won't have to face voters for another four years. Republican senator Tom Coburn won his reelection race this year by 44 points. Republican senator Mike Crapo won his by 46 points. GOP senator Judd Gregg is retiring, and Democratic congressman John Spratt lost his seat on election day, so what do they care? Of all the sitting politicians who plan to vote yes on the panel's recommendations, only one, North Dakota's Democratic senator, Kent Conrad, will face voters in 2012, but he's been comfortably reelected for the past two decades.

So when the vote fails today, that doesn't necessarily mean that the commission's ideas are bad, substantively. But it does mean the panel failed to come up with a plan that's politically feasible, which, after all, is the real challenge.

Deficit panel deadlocked [Politico]

Updated: The vote was 11 for, 7 against.