David Brooks Wants To Replace the Fiscal Cliff With a New Fiscal Cliff

David Brooks’ column today offers an excellent example of why I’ve turned against the pursuit of grand bargains. Brooks, like the reasonable conservative that he is, first proposes that Republicans should agree to a small tax-side downpayment on deficit reduction to acknowledge they’ve lost the election and defuse the immediate austerity bomb.

And then:

That on March 15, 2013, both parties would introduce leader-endorsed tax and entitlement reform bills in Congress that would bring the debt down to 60 percent of G.D.P. by 2024 and 40 percent by 2037, as scored by the Congressional Budget Office. Those bills would work their way through the normal legislative process, as the Constitution intended. If a Grand Bargain is not reached by Dec. 15, 2013, then there would be automatic defense and entitlement cuts and automatic tax increases.

Here’s the problem. The backup deal of “automatic defense and entitlement cuts and automatic tax increases” either has to be better than the status quo or worse than the status quo, from the perspective of congress. If it’s better than the status quo, then obviously the whole rest of the apparatus is moot. But the premise here is that it’s not possible to work out a good deal by March. The automatic cuts and tax hikes are meant to discipline and punish the congress by being worse than the status quo. Create an enforcement mechanism so dire that members will have no choice but to reach an agreement. 

This is exactly the kind of thinking that brought us the fiscal cliff in the first place. And it reflects the extent to which the grand bargaineers have gone from being pesky-but-harmless to actively dangerous. They’re sad that there isn’t an immediate debt crisis to force congress to act, so they want to deliberately create artificial crisis scenarios in order to motivate politicians.

It’s totally insane. And as I’ve said before, it’s also oddly mistargeted. John Boehner and Barack Obama won’t suffer if the country has to implement a harmful series of automatic budget adjustments. Average Americans will suffer. Trying to punish them indirectly by hurting average Americans so much that it begins to damage our elected leaders’ political careers is perverse. A much better solution would be for Boehner and Obama to agree that if there’s no deal by December 2013, Pete Peterson gets to kick them both in the balls. Heck, throw in the whole congressional leadership from both parties if you want (although this might give Nancy Pelosi and Patty Murray an unfair advantage). Make them choose between their desire to drive a hard bargain and their desire to avoid intense, personal, physical pain. It’s a bit of a silly idea, but it makes much more sense than the impulse to punish the voters for the alleged sins of politicians.