Obama’s Debt Deal

The deal to raise the debt ceiling has been signed, sealed, and delivered – but what is being delivered? The political debate about the winners and the losers, whether or not the Republicans or the Democrats will gain or lose the most politically, will be analyzed and debated for weeks.

In many ways this reminds me of the health care reform debate in 2009. I think we saw a preview then of how President Obama made political deals in order to get a rather moderate and centrist piece of legislation through Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress. What did we think would happen when Obama was face with a divided Congress?

But what about the policy implications? Unlike the political ramifications, the policy ramifications are much more serious. The Economist breaks down the nuts and bolts of the deal:

The result is a mishmash of expedient stop gaps and promises that tilts heavily to Republican priorities while guaranteeing more wrangling and uncertainty in the months ahead. It does nothing to support the near-term economic outlook, and makes less progress on long-term fiscal consolidation than hoped.

Its key provisions are $917 billion in deficit reduction over the next decade (the precise timing is unclear), drawn mostly from domestic discretionary outlays. (Discretionary items must be approved annually by Congress. Entitlements, also called mandatory spending, proceed on autopilot unless the law changes.) In return, the debt ceiling rises immediately by $400 billion, about enough borrowing room for the Treasury to fund current spending until September. Then, it would rise another $500 billion unless both the House and Senate were to vote by super-majorities against doing so, which is highly unlikely.

Then comes the tricky part. The debt ceiling will rise by another $1.2 trillion to $1.5 trillion by December 23rd, enough to tide Treasury over until after next autumn’s presidential election, a priority for Mr Obama. However, that requires one of two things to happen. A committee of 12 legislators composed equally from both parties and both chambers is to agree on $1.5 trillion of deficit cuts. Congress could then accept or reject but not amend the proposals by December 23rd. Approval would result in the debt ceiling rising by $1.5 trillion.

If the committee fails to come up with at least $1.2 trillion in cuts or their proposal is rejected, spending would be automatically cut by enough to bring total cuts to $1.2 trillion, coming equally from defence and domestic outlays. The triggers would take effect in 2013, and result in a debt ceiling increase of $1.2 trillion. Payments to Medicare providers could be trimmed but Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid benefits would all be shielded. The thinking is that these cuts would inflict such pain on both Republican and Democratic pet priorities that they will labour mightily to come up with an alternative.

What do policy experts think? Mohamed El-Erian, CEO of global investment firm PIMCO, said that the deal does nothing to restore household and corporate confidence “so unemployment will be higher than it would have been otherwise, growth will be lower than it would be otherwise, and inequality will be worse than it would be otherwise.” Analysis by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) found that the deal could lead to roughly 1.8 million fewer jobs in 2012. The EPI analysis says that “not only erodes funding for public investments and safety-net spending, but also misses an important opportunity to address the lack of jobs.” The Center for American Progress notes that the deal “does nothing to help with the biggest problem facing our nation: anemic job growth and a faltering economy. In fact, by putting a noose on public investments and tightening the squeeze on the middle class, the deal goes straight in the wrong direction.”

 

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