President Obama’s Deficit Commission is all smoke and mirrors. Its members are making a big show of laboring over "painful" choices and considering all options in their quest to bring down the deficit. But inside the Beltway everyone knows what’s going to happen: The commission will reduce the deficit on the backs of the old and the poor, through cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Some opponents have taken to calling it the Cat Food Commission, since that’s what its victims will be forced to eat once the commission gets done slashing away at their modest entitlements.
In fact, the true intent of the Deficit Commission was evident before it was even formed. That intent was only driven home when Obama appointed as its co-chair Alan Simpson, who is well known for voicing, in the most colorful terms, what Paul Krugman calls the "zombie lie" that old-age entitlements will soon bankrupt the country.
So why the big show? Because neither Obama nor Congress wants to get caught cutting Social Security and Medicare in public, certainly not before the November elections. (Medicaid will be cut as well, but politicians tend not to worry so much about poor people, since they don’t go to the polls in the numbers we geezers do.) So instead, they are foisting off this unpleasant task onto the Deficit Commission, showing what the lawyers call "due diligence," sucking their thumbs and pretending to study how to cut the deficit. They’ve got $1 billion in walk-around money to pay for propaganda so the PR industry ought to be plenty happy. So too, should billionaire Pete Peterson, as he and his foundation lackeys push on towards a victory in their longstanding attack on entitlements.
Quite frankly, if the Republican Right could get itself together and shove the tea party nuts back into their cave—as Reagan did with the crackpots hanging around him—they too could reap the benefits of the Cat Food Commission’s work. Ever since the New Deal, the Right has been kicking and screaming about Social Security. Things just got worse in the 1960s with Medicare and Medicaid. And now, thanks to our supposedly "socialist" president, they are within a few inches of cutting a nice hefty hunk out of the largest social programs this nation has ever known.
As one Capital Hill player recently wrote me: "Unfortunately, everyone in a position of power up here knows full-well the connection between Peterson, the commission and Simpson. They either don’t care or are too afraid to say anything because they’ll appear 'soft on deficits.' It’s no different than their Iraq war votes... they believe they’ll appear 'weak' if they don’t jump on the bandwagon. The Democrats, (with the exception of Nancy Pelosi and only a handful of others—including commission member Jan Schakowsky), have no intention of taking on Peterson’s crew. Congress may be a lost cause on this issue, if the voters don’t get pissed off about the Commission fast."
Will enough voters get pissed off enough, soon enough to slow down the anti-entitlement juggernaut? It’s a long shot, at this point. There are signs of something like a small movement growing around the Cat Food Commission idea, and scattered protests—among them a recent demonstration in New York dubbed the “Dancing Grannies for Medicare.”
But it’s going to take a lot to waylay the likely course of future events: The Cat Food Commission will undoubtedly recommend, and a lame duck Congress will pass, legislation that looks fairly innocuous: trimming Social Security a bit, maybe by upping the age by a few years, and cutting a little from Medicare—none of it affecting anyone who is over 65 right now. That will enable the politicians now in office to look like they are protecting seniors and fending off any drastic cuts, while at the same time appearing "tough" on the deficit. But the legislation, in the usual Washington mode, will gradually widen as the years go by, so that by the time this bunch of pols are retired (on their fat pensions) and out of the fray, the new rules will be eating into entitlements in a big way.
The other side of this Faustian bargain would appear to be Congress passing some tax increases. "In setting up his National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform," William Greider recently wrote in The Nation, "Barack Obama is again playing coy in public, but his intentions are widely understood among Washington insiders." As Greider puts it, "The president intends to offer Social Security as a sacrificial lamb to entice conservative deficit hawks into a grand bipartisan compromise in which Democrats agree to cut Social Security benefits for future retirees while Republicans accede to significant tax increases to reduce government red ink."
It remains to be seen how "significant" those tax increases actually turn out to be. But even former Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan seems to be on board with this general plan. Greenspan’s credentials include chairing the first major entitlement-cutting commission back in the 1980s, as well as promoting the Bush-era tax cuts that helped the deficit grow to its current proportions. He still says that reductions to Medicare benefits are necessary—but in a recent interview in the New York Times, Greenspan also says that he now wants to remove all the Bush tax cuts. Seeing as it comes from the champion of "let them eat cake" economics, this pronouncement must be seen as predictor of how conservatives could end up voting. In short, the old and the poor will have to eat cat food, but the rich might kick in a few crumbs as well.