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New Republic’s Jonathan Chait checkmated on Defense cuts

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HH: Joined now by the New Republic’s Jonathan Chait. He is our favorite lefty. You can read Jonathan’s blog over at Jonathan, I confess I am confused, because my Tea Party friends hate the deal, and the left hates the deal. What does Jonathan Chait think about the deal?

JC: Well, I think it depends on when you start the clock on the decision. I don’t think Obama ever should have been in the position of being held hostage over the debt ceiling. That’s never happened before, and there’s no reason for him to let himself be held hostage. Given that he got himself into a hostage fight, I think he got out paying a pretty modest ransom. So the deal itself, given that he was paying a ransom, is not that bad. But again, I think it’s pretty baffling that he allowed himself to get jacked up over this issue.

HH: Now what about the supercommittee? This is extra-Constitutional. There’s a little bit of predicate for it in the BRAC Commission, and in the trade agreement legislation. But never before have both houses of Congress delegated their amending and filibuster powers to a supercommittee with this much authority, or at least, jurisdiction. What do think of it?

JC: Well, didn’t you just say that they have done it before, though?

HH: Well, not with this much authority or jurisdiction. They have the trade promotion authority, and they’ve had the BRAC, which were very narrow, focused issues about which one could say okay, we’ll give it an experiment. But these guys could rewrite the tax code. They could rewrite, they’re outside of reconciliation, they could do anything.

JC: But Congress can still vote it down.

HH: They could vote it down, but they can’t amend it, and they can’t filibuster it.

JC: Right, right. I mean, I think…look, the rationale for this is that these are issues tha the normal Congressional procedure just doesn’t work, and it doesn’t work because partisan gridlock in parochial interests just block it from working. That’s the rationale for not adjusting trade, right? Because otherwise, then every Congressman will say no, protect my business, no, protect this guy in my district, protect this corporation right here, and the same thing with closing the bases, like oh, sure, we need to close bases, just not the ones in my district. And I think you can view the deficit as that same issue writ large. Everyone is protecting something, so nothing gets changed. So I think that’s the rationale for pulling the same approach to this issue.

HH: That is the rationale, but does it alarm you at all, given that they can do anything they want, and then the Democrats are not going to be able to filibuster it in the Senate, and of course, they’re powerless in the House anyway, but that’s what happens when you’re the minority. Are you at all troubled by this?

JC: No, no, I mean, I’m not saying it’ll necessarily lead to a good outcome, but no, the process doesn’t trouble me. I think we have too many veto points in the system, in too many ways, for people representing small interests to block reforms and changes in general.

HH: All right, so now in terms of entitlement reform, which is supposed to be the great while whale they’re going to tackle, when I say entitlement reform, Jonathan Chait, what do you think of?

JC: Changing Medicare, Social Security and possibly, to a lesser extent, Medicaid.

HH: And in what ways, that you would welcome?

JC: Oh, that I would welcome? Well, I wouldn’t inherently welcome anything. You know, I mean, if I was king, I would say let’s let the many reforms that are in place in the Affordable Care Act, that nudge the system through a bunch of different directions, and create a bunch of different experiments, let them play out over time, and let’s see how they’ll work. In the meantime, let’s just raise revenue. We’re still a very low-taxed country in an international context, but higher taxes than where we are now over the next ten years, and then see where we stand ten years from now. That’s what I would do. Now given that my solution isn’t going to get a political majority, I’m willing to trade some cuts in spending on Medicare and Social Security in return for more revenue.

HH: Now of course, there isn’t going to be any revenue coming out of this. The guarantees were given by McConnell and Boehner. So is this thing doomed before it begins, if in fact, their guarantee is correct that there will be no new revenues out of this deal, only cuts?

JC: If you assume that guarantee, I think it probably is doomed, unless the Democrats cave, which I don’t think they will, but you never know.

HH: Okay, so if it’s doomed, and right now, I just don’t know how this gets anywhere, because…

JC: But let me ask you about this guarantee, right? I mean, in theory, suppose the Democrats said okay, we’ll give you $1.8 trillion dollars in cuts to Medicare and Social Security, and you can design them any way you want, all we want is one single dollar in new taxes, one dollar. You would take that deal, right?

HH: I would, but that, the leaders went out on a limb.

JC: So you don’t think the leaders would take that deal?

HH: The leaders won’t take any tax hikes. They can’t.

JC: Not a dollar or a dime?

HH: Well, that’s not reasonable. I mean, whatever would be suggested, a Democrat wouldn’t offer that. But any deal that came forward, I’m sure they’d take a dollar in tax hikes for $1.8 trillion, or $1.5 trillion. But Jonathan, what I’m trying…

JC: Sure, but here’s why. Right, I mean, a thousand dollars?

HH: I don’t know what the cutoff is, but they said no tax hikes. None.

JC: Right.

HH: And so they risk their ability to lead their caucus, and indeed, their jobs if they come forward with a proposal, or their appointees do. So I think we’re going to be at the triggers.

JC: Yeah.

HH: And I’m just curious, where do you think we get $600 billion more out of Defense?

JC: I don’t know anyone who thinks that’s a good thing. I mean, that’s the thing. I mean, what level of taxes would conservatives think would be better than cutting that much out of Defense? There’s got to some level of taxes that you’d rather raise than cutting that much out of Defense.

HH: Nope. Nope, I think if you guys cut $600 billion out of Defense, you’ll go into the political wilderness for fifty years. If you let that happen…

JC: What do you mean you guys?

HH: The Democrats are the ones who insisted on holding Defense hostage. You used the H term. You guys took the Pentagon hostage, and the sailors, soldiers, airmen and Marines of the United States Military. You have to live with the cuts that you insisted on being the trigger if they kick in. If you block entitlement reform, and the Defense cuts come about because of obstinacy on your part. That just makes you guys the San Francisco Democrats of 1984 again.

JC: You realize that entitlements are very, very popular?

HH: They may, in fact, be very, very popular, but they’re also going to bankrupt us, just given demographics. I mean, I’m on the safe side, Jonathan. I’m 55, so they’ve all told me I get everything that ever was promised to me. You’re screwed. You’re absolutely, what are you, 40?

JC: I’m 39.

HH: Yeah, you’re screwed, buddy. There’s nothing for you. We better reform this for you, or you’re just screwed.

JC: That’s not really how it works, you know. It’s not like if Medicare is running a deficit when it runs through a trust fund, it disappears. It just has to cut benefits.

HH: Exactly. That’s what I mean by being screwed. You may want that new knee someday. You’re from Michigan. I know you don’t use much in terms of running ability, but nevertheless, you might need those knees someday.

JC: I have bad knees, and I run a couple of times a week and I play basketball. I need my knees.

HH: Well, you shouldn’t be playing basketball at 39. Your Achilles is going to go. So anyway, you just heard by shtick on Defense. What are Democrats going to do about that, because that’s what is the reality.

JC: You know, I think the idea is Republicans aren’t going to go for that. Republicans might reach a compromise. And if that’s what it takes, that’s what happens. I mean, I don’t think Democrats are going to go for an all-cuts deal that cuts entitlements. No way.

HH: Jonathan Chait from the New Republic, thank you, Jonathan.

End of interview.


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