The headlines about the congressional supercommittee are all screaming "failure." The parties' inability to find common ground on deficit reduction was not a shining moment for Washington, but it may turn out to be a good thing. The deficit still will be cut because of the trigger negotiated as part of the debt-ceiling deal -- and the outrage over those cuts will help frame the debate for next year's presidential campaign with a clarity no spin doctor can obscure.
The trigger will implement $1.2 trillion in spending cuts over 10 years split between domestic and military programs starting in 2013. So the debate has now shifted from deficit reduction in general as a necessity to the spending and taxing priorities of each party -- a crucial change.
Already, Republicans are pledging to undo $500 billion in defense cuts, saying they will cripple our nation's ability to protect itself. They also have framed the deficit as the nation's biggest problem while refusing to ask the wealthy to pay more in taxes. For years, the GOP has said it was "redistribution of wealth" to raise taxes to help preserve the social safety net. Now the question has changed: If our national security is truly at stake, and if Democrats will not agree to devastate domestic programs, can Republicans continue to insist that the wealthy contribute no more to the cause?
The marginal tax rate for the highest earners, 35 percent, is at its lowest level in more than 20 years. During the Eisenhower administration, the top tax rate was 91 percent. Although many taxpayers believe they're being gouged, tax receipts in 2010, as a percentage of GDP, were the lowest since 1950. The government needs more revenue to fund the things taxpayers say they want, including a robust national defense.
Tuesday in Washington, Brent Bozell, chairman of the advocacy group ForAmerica, railed against the triggered defense cuts. "It was a disastrous and unbelievably stupid idea to go along with a provision that would cripple military during time of war," he said, according to the Washington Post.
He's right, though we may disagree about the precise level of military spending we need. More important, the comments are a rare acknowledgment that the budget cannot be a zero-sum game. If the deficit were truly the No. 1 threat to the nation, as many on the right have claimed, then shouldn't everything -- including defense -- be on the table?
Bozell's sentiment could easily be applied to various domestic programs. For example, isn't it "unbelievably stupid" to let Obama's payroll tax cuts expire in the midst of a painfully slow economic recovery, forcing wage earners to pay another $1,000 a year on average? Isn't it "unbelievably stupid" to cut funding for more than 600 food safety inspectors, which could lead to 50,000 more food-borne illnesses every year? These things and more are in the non-defense trigger cuts.
Of course, none of this would happen if the GOP agreed to what the majority of Americans want: modestly higher taxes on the wealthy.
After railing about the deficit for two years, Republicans appear prepared to make it worse by reversing half the trigger cuts rather than ask the wealthy to pay more. That sets the stage for a real election-year debate.