Republicans understand their political leverage is significantly diminished following their electoral drubbing earlier this month, but some fear the secretive, high-level nature of tax and spending negotiations underway risks undermining the GOP position even further.
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R., Ala.), the top Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, last week issued a strong rebuke to the “closed-door meetings” and “secrecy” that have characterized recent efforts to produce a bipartisan agreement.
“Secrecy cements the status quo: more spending, more debt, more runaway government. It is the enemy of accountability, change, and reform,” Sessions said in a statement. “We cannot simply rush through some secret deal that no one can amend, alter, review, scrutinize, or dispute.”
He called on party leaders to guarantee that any agreement on the fiscal cliff be placed on the Senate floor for a full week of open debate with amendments before a final vote.
President of Americans for Tax Reform Grover Norquist echoed the call for transparency.
“If Republicans are being unreasonable the whole world will see it; if Obama’s being unreasonable the whole world will see it,” Norquist told the Washington Free Beacon. “Let’s have an actual honest, transparent discussion, and not have to wait a year for Bob Woodward to write a book about it.”
One concern about the prevalence of closed-door talks and last-minute deals is that they validate the Democratic Party’s strategic refusal over the past several years even to propose a viable budget document.
More than 1,300 days have passed since Senate Democrats formally approved a budget resolution as required by law. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) has maintained it would be “foolish” for them to do so.
Sen. Patty Murray (D., Wash.), the incoming Senate Budget Committee chair, appeared poised to continue that dubious tradition.
Murray declined last week to commit to passing a budget this year and suggested an agreement on the fiscal cliff could preclude the need to do so.
Senate Democrats have argued previously that last year’s bipartisan debt ceiling agreement, which installed caps on federal spending over the next decade, absolved them of the need to propose and pass a budget.
GOP critics have long contended that Senate Democrats have declined to endorse a budget resolution because they do not have a viable plan to address the country’s long-term debt problem. The plan offered by President Barack Obama did not receive a single yes vote.
Republicans say Democrats have calculated that any serious budget they put forward would prove politically disastrous given the magnitude of the tax increases necessary to close the deficit absent meaningful spending cuts, which Democrats have opposed at every turn.
Simply raising tax rates on “the rich,” the Democrats’ favored plan, would not come close to solving the debt problem.
The federal government could tax high incomes at a 100 percent rate and still not raise enough revenue to cover the amount of the debt racked up in the past year.
Democrats in Congress remain divided on a host of issues including entitlement reform, the optimal proportion of tax hikes to spending cuts, and the definition of “wealthy.” Refusing to endorse a formal budget has allowed the party to avoid potentially awkward infighting.
Obama has been similarly hesitant to propose a plan to address the long-term debt crisis. His most recent budget was panned by independent experts for its reliance on accounting gimmicks and for failing to rein in the burgeoning federal debt, which has increased from about $10 trillion when Obama took office to its current level of more than $16 trillion.
According to the White House’s own projections, under the president’s plan the country’s “fiscal position gradually deteriorates” after 2022.
Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has admitted that the Obama administration does not have a plan to address the nation’s long-term fiscal problem.
“We’re not coming before you today to say we have a definitive solution to that long-term problem,” he told House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) in February. “What we do know is, we don’t like yours.”
Yet the president last week touted his budget as viable basis for compromise.
“I don't expect the Republicans simply to adopt my budget,” he told members of the White House press corps. “That's not realistic.”
Reporters did not follow up by noting that Democrats have already unanimously rejected Obama's budget.
Even though the president has clearly stated his desire to raise taxes as part of any potential budget agreement, he has been opaque regarding what he plans to do with the new revenue.
Obama’s reelection campaign released an ad in July touting his plan to force “the wealthy to pay a little more so we can pay down our debt in a balanced way. So that we can afford to invest in education, manufacturing, and homegrown American energy for good middle class jobs.”
Republicans are concerned Obama and Democrats would use the revenue raised from tax increases to fund new spending initiatives rather than to pay down the national debt.
Some Republicans maintain that, by agreeing to negotiate with the White House and Democratic leaders behind closed doors, the party may put Republican fingerprints on unpopular economic proposals and thus relinquish political leverage on budget issues.
Leading Democrats in the Senate are already insisting that a deal on the fiscal cliff include a fresh round of stimulus spending.
The president, meanwhile, has yet to abandon his American Jobs Act, which proposed a one-year spending binge of nearly half a trillion dollars in borrowed funds.