By Ezra Klein
The letter that Sens. Michael Bennet, Mike Johanns, and 62 of their colleagues sent President Barack Obama asking him to support comprehensive deficit reduction is an odd document. It’s not the letter’s language that caught my eye. In Washington, little could be more standard than “we believe comprehensive deficit reduction measures are imperative.” What’s odd is its theory of legislative action.
”We...ask you to support a broad approach to solving the problem,” write the senators. “With a strong signal of support from you, we believe that we can achieve consensus on these important fiscal issues.” In this letter, 64 senators manage to sound like an interest group begging the White House for support rather than a supermajority of the United States Senate -- which is to say, a coalition of men and women who could, on their own, draft and pass the very legislation they’re talking about. Which raises the question: Why are they writing this letter rather than the legislation this letter claims to want?
If vague statements about “a broad approach to solving the problem” could solve the problem, the problem would be solved. It would’ve been done during the president’s post-budget press conference, when he said “we can get Social Security done in the same way that Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill were able to get it done” and agreed that “Medicare and Medicaid are huge problems...that I’m prepared to work with Democrats and Republicans to start dealing with that in a serious way.” That sounds like a “signal of support” to me, and it should be plenty to get the Senate going on a deficit plan -- if, indeed, that’s something a supermajority of senators are actually interested in doing.
I have my doubts, though. There are a lot of letters and statements about deficit reduction flying around, but precious little legislation. If the 64 senators who signed this letter wanted to write and vote for a bill, that’d be a pretty “strong signal.” But for 64 senators to instead write letters about how someone else should be making affirmative noises about deficit reduction, well, read closely, that’s a signal of a very different kind. The reality is that the White House can’t write the bill on Congress’s behalf. It can’t pass the bill through Congress. And it can’t kill the bill Congress pases if the bill has a veto-proof majority. Obama could be doing more to move public opinion, but on this issue, the empowered actor is the legislative branch, not the executive branch. And the legislative branch should begin acting like it.