A meteor hit the political chattering classes at approximately 1 p.m. EST today. Twitter feeds were lit up with snarky comments, bloggers interrupted their post-election European vacations to pound their keyboards, and confused reporters (at least this one) dashed off frantic e-mails to experts asking for explanations of terms such as "a sequester that is triggered at end of session if final appropriations are above the cap" and "the amount of the actuarial value of FEHBP standard option."
What could cause such mass hysteria? The passage of major legislation? The Supreme Court issuing a landmark ruling? How about a draft proposal of recommendations from two members of an 18-person powerless committee? The co-chairs of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform—a bipartisan group of elder statesmen created by President Obama to come up with a grand compromise to reduce the federal budget deficit—put out their draft today. This is not a final report, and there may not be a final report that gets sufficient support, which in this case is defined as 14 of the 18 members. That's why the White House is withholding judgment for now. But today Erskine Bowles, a Democrat, and former senator Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) released the template for what they would consider a suitable deal. Since fiscal hawks like Senate Budget Committee chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) have largely given up on meaningfully restraining deficits through the normal congressional process and put the onus on the commission, these suggestions have been eagerly anticipated. And they matter, as they will form the basis for the debate about reducing structural budget deficits, but their importance should not be overstated: Senate Republicans, their supposed commitment to deficit reduction notwithstanding, opposed the creation of this panel.
So what is the overall gist of the proposal? Well, it favors conservative goals. Most of the savings come from spending cuts rather than increases in tax revenue. And the mechanism for increasing tax revenue is to actually cut marginal rates while eliminating deductions, something intellectually honest conservatives tend to favor. (One great thing about the proposal is that it refers to tax deductions as "tax expenditures," thus emphasizing the point that tax cuts have the same impact on the deficit as spending.)
Among pundits, there seemed to be a lot more interest on the left. Despite the right's putative commitment to deficit reduction, this may have something to do with the fact that, as conservative Ross Douthat wrote in his most recent New York Times column, Republicans generally don't engage seriously with difficult policy questions. Some lefties are already deriding it as an unbalanced proposal that should be rejected. Berkeley professor Brad DeLong calls it "an unforced error" that would adopt a fundamentally conservative vision by limiting the size of the government to 21 percent of gross domestic product, even if health-care costs rise or other exigencies mean making harsh spending cuts to stay under that arbitrary limit. Center-left deficit hawks, like the folks at The New Republic, are more sanguine, saying that while imperfect, the proposal might be worth supporting. Conservatives, who have been making a lot of noise about deficit spending, are largely silent thus far. As of 5 p.m. EST, neither The Weekly Standard nor Red State had even acknowledged the proposal's existence. A perusal of National Review's blog The Corner shows reactions that are mixed on the specifics, but overall somewhat positive.
Among activist groups, though, receptions were colder on both sides. The liberal Campaign for America's Future blasted the proposal as "a recipe for pushing the economy back into recession," because it would "impose a crippling austerity on the US government at a time when we need a strong increase in public investment." On the other side of the spectrum, Americans for Prosperity complained that it contains tax increases and the reduction or removal of various tax deductions. This hostility from both sides speaks to Ezra Klein's point that the commission was not set up to resolve the math of how to balance the budget, but rather to build the political momentum for a compromise wherein the left would accept spending cuts and the right would accept tax increases. But this has not yet happened.