Americans should have known better than to expect real deficit reduction out of the standoff that gripped Washington in recent weeks. The tough decisions will be left to you, the voters, making 2012 one of the most pivotal elections in recent memory.
Many congressional races, as well as the race for president, will be referenda on competing plans. Americans will decide between a conservative philosophy of reforming and cutting social service entitlements without raising taxes, and a liberal plan of combining tax increases with cuts to defense spending and other programs, preserving entitlements at all costs.
If some voters get to choose a third way — one that balances the two approaches — it will be because they live in a district divided between party loyalties, or in a place where party politics allows for a more moderate approach. Such districts are rare. Many states have drawn districts along party lines to protect incumbents, and party caucuses and conventions tend to be dominated by ideological extremes, whose adherents are motivated to get involved.
The United States has a representative government, but it is representative mainly of those people who vote, and more specifically of those who involve themselves in party politics.
That doesn't bode well for the future of deficit control. The 2012 election may change the balance of power, but it isn't likely to give either party a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. Any meaningful solution to the problem will require compromise, and that is not an outcome that produces a lot of political rewards these days. That could change if more moderate and reasonable people become politically involved.
The deal that emerged this week involves cuts that do not get to the systemic problems threatening the economy long-term. The heart of the deal involves almost $1 trillion in cuts in the form of caps on discretionary spending between 2012 and 2021. A special committee, evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, has until November to come up with an additional $1.5 trillion in savings. If it fails to do so, a set of automatic cuts would be triggered in military and non-military areas. Significantly, however, these would not come from Medicare or Social Security. Also, the law says Congress now must vote on a proposal for a constitutional balanced budget amendment.
Despite its flaws, the deal was important in that it allowed the nation to raise its debt ceiling to pay for obligations already incurred. Failing to do so would have had catastrophic consequences. It also began a serious dialog about the kinds of cuts the nation will need to rectify its long-term problems. The president's own deficit commission said last year that, under the current trajectory, by 2025 all federal revenues would go to pay only interest payments on the nation's debt. Everything else would require borrowed money.
Discretionary cuts will indeed save the nation money over time. But real deficit reduction will involve a more balanced, courageous approach, including significant changes to entitlements, and including compromises by both sides.
With 2012 looming as an important election year, the best way to ensure a good outcome is to become involved in the political process, beginning with your neighborhood caucus meetings.