Thursday, March 10, 2011

The art of grilling a tax/budget deal

A dozen or more years ago, I wrote a press release announcing the opening in Manhattan of the Greek seafood restaurant Milos Estiatorio.  The owner, Costas Spiliadis, explained to me that in cooking fish, timing is everything. At Milos they keep it simple, and concentrate on getting it off the grill at the right instant.*

Perhaps that is the Obama theory of bipartisan budget negotiation? The WSJ's Damian Paletta and Naftali Bendavid, reporting on progress in Senate bipartisan "Gang of Six" negotiations toward a comprehensive tax/budget reform deal, has this to say about the White House posture:
 The success of the senators' efforts will depend on whether it is endorsed at some point by President Barack Obama. White House officials have been briefed on progress but have mostly stayed on the sidelines, people familiar with the matter said.

 White House budget director Jacob Lew said, "We think it's a good thing to have members looking for bipartisan conversations where they are exploring ideas."
Originally cued by Matt Yglesias, I have noted repeatedly that the administration has explicitly bought into the incontrovertible premise that presidential advocacy for a specific plan or policy, particularly in the State of the Union address, immediately polarizes the issue.  Ergo, if the administration is serious about passing a long-term global tax/budget reform bill before the 2012 election we are left with a paradox.  Bold, proactive action, such as laying out a detailed plan to the left of Bowles-Simpson (or even endorsing Bowles-Simpson), would scotch the chance of any deal.  Public passivity, as expressed above, would be a sign of good faith. And there's at least embryonic evidence that John Boehner, for one, takes it as such, notwithstanding his public pleas for the President to expose himself by laying out a plan for the GOP to attack. Here's Boehner as reported in the WSJ on Mar. 4
Mr. Boehner, an Ohio Republican, said he told President Barack Obama that he would take the political plunge alongside him if the president announced his own willingness to tackle changes to those programs.

"I offered to the president we could lock arms and walk out and begin the conversation about the size of the problem," Mr. Boehner said, adding that Mr. Obama responded "positively."...

He added that his relationship with Mr. Obama, with whom he talks every couple of weeks, is good. "It's open, it's honest, it's fair," he said.
I do constantly suspect myself of confirmation bias in favor of crediting the administration with 'long game' planning. Ezra Klein's warning on this front is well-taken. And the undeniable fact that presidential input polarizes can be reduced to the absurdity that the administration should never advocate anything. But Obama's own  metaphor for how a comprehensive tax/budget deal must be done -- that the principals must all get in the boat together -- does itself suggest a delicate timing challenge for the heaviest footprint.

As a strike against my confirmation bias, I must say that it seems all but inconceivable that more than a handful of GOP votes in the current House could be mustered in favor of a budget bill that would raise revenues as a percent of GDP -- notwithstanding the current willingness of conservative Senators Chambliss, Coburn and Crapo (the Republican half of the Gang of Six) to consider net revenue hikes. Alternatives to seeking a deal before 2012 might include a) seeking a stalemate, and letting the Bush tax cuts sunset, or b) flying the Democratic flag, laying out a progressive tax/budget blueprint, and seeking a more favorable Congress in 2012. Given the math stacked against the Democrats in the Senate in 2012, however, it would seem that if this moment is unpropitious, it's likely to be the least unpropitious moment for some time.

* A Google search on Milos turns up a review, posted on the restaurant's website , that bears out my memory on this:
My pageot, a snapper, went for almost $70. It was gently grilled with a touch of olive oil and lemon juice and exhibited the fragrant softness so prized in Mediterranean cuisine.

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