As fiscal talks continue in Washington, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has pushed a plan in which Republicans accept no concessions whatsoever. Yesterday, the GOP leader put forward a new proposal that kinda sorta looks like a compromise.
In a phone call with Mr. Obama on Friday, the speaker, who had resolutely opposed allowing income tax rates to rise on anyone, instead spoke in terms of preventing taxes from rising on everyone with a yearly income below $1 million. He also said he could accept an agreement that would raise $1 trillion in new revenues over 10 years, up from $800 billion, if the president committed to significant savings from benefit programs like Medicare, according to people familiar with the talks.
Also, in a big concession, Mr. Boehner offered to extend the debt limit for a year rather than withhold Republican support for an increase to once again use the need to raise the nation's borrowing limit as leverage to force Mr. Obama's acceptance of additional spending cuts in coming months.
So, under this latest pitch, Democrats would get increased tax rates, but instead of affecting income over $250,000, only income above $1 million would be subject to the higher rate. Also, Boehner would extend the debt ceiling for a year, delaying the next crisis until early 2014.
In exchange, the Speaker would seek entitlement cuts. Which ones? That's unclear, which is part of the problem -- I've seen reports that Boehner expects, in exchange for his concessions, a change in Medicare's eligibility age and Social Security cuts in the form of a chained consumer price index, but the details have not been released publicly by either side.
I'll concede that for Boehner, this represents a subtle shift away from an inflexible, far-right line. After all, unlike the last fiscal offer, this one actually includes provisions Republicans don't like, which I suppose reflects a degree of progress.
But to call this approach "balanced" is absurd. Indeed, it's probably a good time for the political world to pause and appreciate what constitutes a concession -- and what doesn't.
Under Boehner's new offer, top marginal tax rates for millionaires and billionaires would go up, presumably to Clinton-era levels. That's nice, but there are a couple of problems. For one thing, Obama's poised to get this anyway. For another, by exempting income up to $999,999, the Speaker's offer makes debt reduction that much more difficult -- and debt reduction is the ostensible point of this entire endeavor.
But what about a one-year extension in the debt ceiling? That's nice, too, but it's not a concession -- as Boehner knows, he's going to have to raise the limit anyway. It's not optional, unless he's serious about crashing the global economy on purpose. Folks have to stop thinking about debt-ceiling increases as congressional favors to the Obama administration. We're talking about paying for money that's already been spent by Congress, in order to protect the full faith and credit of the United States. A congressional leader offering to do what he knows he has to do isn't much of a compromise.
In other words, the new Republican offer is less ridiculous than the last one, but only marginally. The GOP is still offering Democrats policies they're poised to get anyway, in exchange for cuts to social-insurance programs that have not yet been explained or identified.