Gang of Six is more smoke and mirrors

Forty-nine senators drawn from both sides of the aisle were given a five-page plan Tuesday that described the major “starting concepts” agreed to by the Gang of Six for fixing the federal budget. Many of the attending senators emerged from the briefing by the plan’s authors praising the proposal as “responsible,” “bipartisan” and “achievable.”

The truth is, the plan is another collection of hollow promises, vague commitments and high-sounding declarations.

The document purports to “slash our nation’s deficits” by $3.7 trillion over 10 years, but to get there it raises taxes $2 trillion now in return for mostly undefined spending cuts to be enacted somewhere off in an ill-defined future. Does anybody seriously doubt that the professional politicians will waste no time in adopting the tax hikes, then find a hundred excuses for delaying the spending cuts and deficit reductions until they are a dead letter?

And since, according to its authors, the plan presently is only “major concepts,” it’s not clear why it was made public Tuesday except to distract from House passage of a real law — the Cut, Cap and Balance Act of 2011 — that raises the debt ceiling and mandates concrete federal spending cuts now and for a decade hence (it also calls for a balanced-budget amendment that many Washington, D.C., hands consider impossible to pass). No wonder Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., one of the Gang of Six authors, admitted that the plan “has not been drafted, nor has it been scored by the [Congressional Budget Office] — it’s not ready for prime time.”

Not ready for prime time indeed. The plan claims it “immediately” implements a $500 billion deficit reduction as a “down payment.” But most of these “immediate” savings come from spending caps that expire in 2015 and Social Security cuts that don’t begin until 2017. The plan does what Congress always does: It kicks the can down the road by requiring congressional committees to “report legislation within six months that would deliver real deficit savings.” The plan says nothing about what happens if the committees can’t agree on those savings.

The tax portion of the plan is even more disingenuous, simultaneously claiming to provide both a $1.5 trillion net tax cut and a $1 trillion revenue increase. How does it accomplish this only-in-Washington feat of accounting gimmickry? It cherry-picks among multiple budget baselines to suit whichever result is being discussed at any given moment. The reality is that compared to the current tax policy baseline, the plan raises taxes by $2.8 trillion.

Like President Barack Obama’s  $859 billion economic stimulus package and the Obamacare that he and Democratic leaders rammed through Congress last year, the Gang of Six plan unveiled Tuesday was written in secret, with no public record of its deliberations or who participated in its creation.

But it does offer one thing of value: It reminds us that Washington’s professional politicians thrive behind closed doors.

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