Labor Knew That Democrats Were Bluffing About Entitlement Cuts

National Journal’s tick-tock of the House GOP’s fumble is a solid read, with nice details down to the room numbers where key meetings occured. If you look for them, there are also some clues as to what you can and can’t take seriously when members of Congress talk about debt.

Richard Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, appeared at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, and took a hard line, announcing that major cuts in entitlement programs were now off the table. Labor unions such as the AFL-CIO and the Service Employees International Union also felt emboldened by the outcome of the election and the political capital they had exerted to help elect the president in swing states like Ohio; in turn, they demanded that the president stick to his campaign promise of raising taxes, while also preserving Medicare and other benefit programs.

That was a highly touted speech, but if you were an optimistic entitlement-cutter, you would have found plenty of clues that Durbin was open to cuts. I’ll excerpt:

It is not protection to pretend that Social Security and Medicare can continue forever without any changes.

The truth is Social Security and Medicare have survived this long precisely because we have been willing in the past to make technical adjustments without sacrificing the basic principles or fundamental soundness of these essential programs.

Progressives should be willing to talk about ways to ensure the long-term viability of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, but those conversations should not be part of a plan to avert the fiscal cliff.

Putting the discussions off indefinitely makes our choices harder; our success less likely; and negative effects on current beneficiaries a near certainty.

In January 1983 I was a newly elected Congressman representing a Republican district.  My first day on the job I was told:  In six months, Social Security will be broke.

Instead, four months later, Congress passed a series of modest, bipartisan changes that added decades of solvency toSocial Security.  That was 30 years ago.

Labor heard all of this and thought: Phew, Durbin’s not going to cut anything. Durbin wasn’t merely the Democrats’ whip; he was the key progressive on the Bowles-Simpson committee. He could have mentioned a few Bowles-Simpsons ideas worth keeping on the table, and he didn’t.

After the vote last night, the Campaign to Fix the Debt released a statement from Bowles and Simpson, jawing about how they were very, very disappointed by the punt. “Washington missed this magic moment to do something big to reduce the deficit, reform our tax code, and fix our entitlement programs,” they wrote. “We have all known for over a year that this fiscal cliff was coming. In fact Washington politicians set it up to force themselves to seriously deal with our Nation’s long term fiscal problems.”

Indeed. And they’ve claimed that they’re be another “accountability moment” in two months. And we know when to believe them, and when to translate their words as guff.