Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Level of Reality in DC

Ezra on what passes for reality in Washington.
There's a political consultant I know who likes to illustrate the cynicism and dysfunction of our political system with an anecdote from his days as a congressional staffer. He was sitting behind his boss during a hearing when one of the other members -- a well-respected member, no less -- turned to them and gestured at the witness, who was earnestly presenting her case. "Can you believe that?" He laughed. "She thinks this is all on the level!"
Sometimes, I think the biggest analytical mistake I make in my writing is pretending too much of this stuff is on the level. My impulse, when presented with an argument about the cost and deficit impact of the Affordable Care Act, is to launch into a long explanation of why the numbers add up, or at least add up given what we know now. But perhaps it would be better to just show this graph:
That graphs shows the 10-year cost, and the total deficit impact, of a couple of different pieces of legislation. First, the extension of the Bush tax cuts that Republicans supported last year. It would've cost $4 trillion over 10 years, and not a dime would've been offset. So it would've also cost the deficit $4 trillion over 10 years. Then the tax deal that we actually passed, which cost $850 billion and charged it to the country's credit card. Then the 2003 Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit, which is the last major health-care law the Republicans passed. It was projected to cost $394.8 billion over 10 years, and Republicans managed to offset 0.5 billion of that.

Then there's the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. It's projected to cost $938 billion over 10 years. But the final legislation included $1.2 trillion in spending cuts and tax increases. So it actually cuts the deficit in the first 10 years. And in case you think that's a trick, CBO projects that it'll cut the deficit by even more than that in the second 10 years. So it's fiscally responsible and getting more so. Indeed, there's not another major law passed in last 10 years that did close to as much to pay for itself. You can be skeptical about certain provisions, or want to see the bill do more, and still admit that.

And yet I turn on C-SPAN or open the paper and watch the legislation's opponents -- most all of whom voted for or supported one of the other bills on that graph -- say things like "repeal is the logical first step toward restoring fiscal sanity."

It's just not on the level.