Time For Grownups

By: Steven and Cokie Roberts

Time for grownups

Finally, the Responsibility Caucus has spoken. A total of 343 lawmakers, from both chambers and both parties, supported a bill to raise the debt ceiling and avoid financial calamity. For now.

In an act of astounding irresponsibility, however, 187 votes were cast against the measure and for disaster. Every significant Republican candidate for president except one, Jon Huntsman, sided with the naysayers. The danger to America’s fiscal health is not over. It’s just beginning.

Here’s the question: Can the spark of good sense that flared briefly on Capitol Hill be kept alive? Or will it be quickly suffocated by the forces of ideological fury?

The stakes could not be higher. The economic recovery is sputtering and confidence is dwindling. The stock market continues to slide. America’s reputation for fiscal soundness has already been blemished. The country’s credit rating could still be downgraded.

The next big test will come when the 12-member bipartisan commission, created by the debt ceiling measure to recommend $1.2 trillion in further cost savings, is appointed. Will it be dominated by the voices of purity or pragmatism, confrontation or conciliation?

President Obama was absolutely right when he said, “Voters may have chosen divided government. But they sure didn’t vote for dysfunctional government. They want us to solve problems.” So here’s a suggestion: no one who voted against the debt ceiling increase should be appointed to the commission. That level of rigidity and self-righteousness should be an automatic disqualification for membership.

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Of course excluding the hardest-liners is no guarantee of success. But including them is a guarantee of failure. The problems facing the commission are extraordinarily delicate and difficult. The country is trying to cure two fiscal illnesses at once and the remedies are largely contradictory. It’s like taking cancer medicine that causes heart failure.

Stimulating the sluggish economy requires more government spending, not less. That’s the way to keep teachers and cops working, put tax rebates and unemployment benefits into people’s pockets, generate more consumer confidence and private-sector hiring. But the soaring budget deficits demand the opposite: more belt-tightening, smaller government programs, lower interest payments.

The answer, if there is one, comes down to one of Obama’s favorite words: balance. Conservatives have to accept new revenues, liberals have to accept cuts in cherished social programs, and the whole package has to be calibrated very carefully.

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