Columnist Doubts Parties Can Resolve Fundamental Differences

Steve Inskeep talks to Jonathan Chait, a commentator for New York magazine about how liberals are viewing the current budget negotiations in Congress, and if they might be willing to compromise on a deal.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now, the details of this deal will also matter to columnist Jonathan Chait of New York magazine. He opposes adding any policy changes to a debt ceiling measure. Chait says it sets a bad precedent for future Congresses, or - for that matter - future presidents.

JONATHAN CHAIT: If the president was more sociopathic or more able to feign sociopathy, then the president would get his way. This reordering of the political system would empower the more ruthless actors in the political system, which is the opposite of what we want.

INSKEEP: That's what he's worried about. The liberal columnist says an opposition party has every right to block legislation, but using the debt ceiling to impose changes in the law would be different for him.

There's another reason Chait warns against budget issues being negotiated around a must-pass measure like the debt ceiling. He doubts the parties can resolve their fundamental differences.

CHAIT: I think the prospects are almost nonexistent. I think people have really fooled themselves about this. Let me put it this way: The Democratic position is we care about the long-term debt. When I say the Democratic position, I mean President Obama's position, the position of most of his Democratic allies. Now, a lot of Democrats aren't going to agree with this. They're concerned about the long-term debt. They're also concerned about inequality. So they're saying we don't want to do it all on the spending side, because this would worsen inequality. All the burden of deficit reduction would fall on the working-class and the middle-class and...

INSKEEP: People who benefit from federal programs of one kind or another.

CHAIT: Right. And that, I think, is probably an impediment that's going to make any deal impossible, because I think fundamentally the Republican concern - much more than deficits - is the government's role in lessening inequality. The Republican belief, at its core, is that the government does too much to take from the successful to give to the unsuccessful. It takes too much from what they would call hard-working people and gives too much money to people who don't work hard or are undeserving or lazy, as they would put it.

INSKEEP: So you're saying that it's not a matter of getting past the immediate emergency and then negotiating a budget - which perhaps, in a different world, Congress and the president would have negotiated before. You're saying the whole thing is just to get past this crisis, and it almost doesn't matter what the terms are, as long as the president is not giving in.

CHAIT: That's exactly right. The constitutional and economic dangers here dwarf the policy concerns at hand. I want to make clear that I'm not against the idea of compromise, and understanding that Democrats would have to accept policies that they wouldn't like in order to get things they do like. That's how politics works when you don't control all of government. I also think if Republicans don't want to make that kind of deal, that's also fine. But I find the current situation and their demands for forcing the Democrats on Capitol Hill so unusual and so dangerous, that that simply blots out everything else.

INSKEEP: What if Republicans only get the president and the Democrats to give up a little bit? For example, there was that proposal the other day by Maine Republican Senator Susan Collins that included, among other things, delaying a tax that's associated with the Affordable Care Act.

CHAIT: No. I think that's unacceptable. I think that's dangerous, because then we find ourselves in the same situation. The debt ceiling comes up again. Then we're again negotiating what will one party give the other party in return for not lighting a crisis in the world economy.

INSKEEP: What about Democrats ramping up their demands? We have heard that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has been making budget demands. You can look at liberal publications - the Nation comes to mind a day or two ago - where they have a list of things that they think Democrats ought to be demanding in this situation. If people are going to make demands, Democrats should make demands, they say.

CHAIT: You know, I think that's useful as a rhetorical exercise. I prefer to frame it in a historical way. What if when Democrats took control of Congress in 2006, they said to President Bush your tax cuts have created to a budget crisis, your Iraq War has created a budget and foreign policy crisis? You must stop these things, or else we won't raise the debt ceiling. Would that have been acceptable tactics to Republicans? And I think the answer is no. They wouldn't have been acceptable, and they shouldn't have been acceptable.

INSKEEP: Somewhere a Republican is screaming at the radio, or many of them right now, that in 2006, President Obama, when he was a senator, did vote against raising the debt ceiling because he did say that he was objecting to Republican budget policies.

CHAIT: That's right. I think it's worth distinguishing the way the debt ceiling has been used politically before, and the way it's being used now. Before, it was an opportunity for the opposition party to posture against the president, to give speeches denouncing the president's fiscal irresponsibility. When President Obama voted against the debt ceiling increase in 2006, the Senate passed it by a 52-48 vote. If the opposition party is trying to stop something, it can't pass with 52 votes. It needs 60 votes. The Democrats allowed it to pass with 52 votes rather than 60 votes, because they weren't actually trying to stop it. They wanted to force Republicans to vote for it. They wanted to give speeches about the deficit, and they wanted it to pass. They did not ask for any policy concessions in return for it passing. Now, you could say that that's a silly system, as well. And I agree. It's silly. But at least that was an innocuous situation and the grounds for hypocrisy and insulting the intelligence of the American people, as opposed to actually threatening the world economy.

INSKEEP: And that's where you think we're at? Insulting the intelligence of the American people is a better world than the world we're in now?

CHAIT: I'd like to get back to that world.

INSKEEP: Jonathan Chait of New York magazine. Thanks very much.

CHAIT: Thank you.

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