As Jack Lew moves over to the Treasury Department, I think it’s important to revisit a point that was made but not understood in a lot of reporting on the 2011 debt ceiling battle. At this point, Lew was OMB chief and Bill Daley was chief of staff. Lew’s reputation, at the time, was as a committed progressive who Republicans liked and thought they could do business with because he’s also a pretty hard-boiled numbers guy.
But it emerged over the course of the negotiations that John Boehner and other Republicans kept trying to kick Lew out of the room to make a deal. That’s because what Boehner wanted to do was make a deal in which spending cuts would be balanced by flim-flam, and Lew kept saying that the flim-flam didn’t work mathematically. To put a balanced package together, Lew insisted that you needed to have real revenue-increasing tax hikes not just “tax reform” and handwaving. This kept spoiling the party, so Boehner wanted to make deals with Daley—with the political fixer rather than the budget guy. But ultimately you couldn’t get a deal done, because you can’t just smuggle a deal past the OMB.
This whole dynamic seems to have poisoned the well to some extent, but in practical terms it was constructive. By the time of the most recent negotiation, Daley was gone and Lew was more powerful than ever as chief of staff. And while Republicans didn’t come to love Lew, we actually had a proper negotiation this time where it was understood from the get-go that a tax increase is a tax increase and flim-flam is flim-flam. There was no more “lets waste weeks of everyone’s time with hand-wavy tax reform proposals that don’t add up.” Frustrating if you think a little flim-flam would help massage intra-caucus politics, but much better otherwise.