I dropped by a forum of the Peterson-Pew Commission on Budget Reform yesterday, the earnest group of budget mavens that's been pushing for a bipartisan deficit commission and is itself a dress rehearsal for such a commision.
Unfortunately, as polite as the discussion was, the gridlock was obvious. It didn't bode well for President Obama's plans to name a bipartisan commission on Thursday.
Douglas Holtz-Eakin, the former CBO director who was John McCain's top economic adviser during the presidential campaign, sounded dispassionate until you listened to the nuances. Without flatly rejecting the idea of tax increases to help close the deficit, Holtz-Eakin pointedly insisted that spending was the main problem and that "we cannot tax our way" out of this.
This was a subtle re-framing of what he often said back when he was CBO director: that we couldn't simply "grow our way" out of the long-term budget mess. Back then, Holtz-Eakin would also say that the surpluses achieved under Clinton had been the result of multiple factors -- economic growth, but also pay-go rules and tax increases (including the Social Security hikes that were still kicking in tons of extra cash at the time time).
You could see where this was going. For all the earnestness, Holtz-Eakin was already echoing Mitch McConnell's support' for a "bipartisan "spending commission.'' In other words: tax increases aren't really on the table. And we shouldn't be surprised: Holtz-Eakin has recently been tapped by prominent GOP types to start a Republican-oriented think tank to help counter Democratic-leaning shops like John Podesta's Center for American Progress.
As it happened, Podesta was on the stage as well. He was polite too, but he made a point in his opening remarks of blaming the deficits almost entirely on George W. Bush -- the tax cuts, the two unfunded wars, the unfunded prescription drug program for Medicare. It was pretty much a straight recital of White House talking points.
Don't get me wrong. I agree that Bush and the Republican congress bear a huge responsibility -- the bulk of the responsibility -- for today's deficits. But if a bipartisan group of self-proclaimed budget wonks -- a practice commission, if you will -- is already parroting party lines, just imagine how much harder the lines will be when the real commission tries to hash things out.