How Economic Solutions Get Blocked – and Who's Blocking Them

Our nation has lost its ability to meet urgent challenges. Sen. Pat Toomey provides a classic illustration of why.

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I’m not trying to pick on Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) – a lot of folks do that these days – but I want to briefly break down my argument with him yesterday on TV, because I think it’s instructive.  I know that politicians obfuscate, and always have, but what I saw and heard here was a microcosm of the dysfunction that has hobbled our political system’s ability to self-correct and deliver solutions to urgent national problems.

Sen. Toomey was a member of the failed supercommittee, the group appointed at the end of last year's debt-ceiling fight to agree on bipartisan deficit reduction.  My exchange with him on CNBC yesterday (edited for space – see whole segment below) was moderated by Andrew Ross Sorkin, who began by asking the senator whether the president has tried "to put his hand across the aisle in any way":

Sen. Pat Toomey: I don't think so. I hope so. I hope I'm wrong but I served on the supercommittee and was very frustrated throughout the entire process, not the least by the fact that the president, frankly, actively made our job more difficult, threatening a veto if we touched entitlements [my bold] …

Jared Bernstein: Can I make one factual correction with respect to the Senator. The president did present a budget to the supercommittee and I'm sure Senator Toomey didn't like it, but it did have well over $100 billion in entitlement cuts so that's a flat out mistake…

P.T.: Well Jared, I think that there were Democrats on that committee who had a different point of view.

J.B.: I'm just talking about the President, I’m just talking about your statement about the president on entitlements.

P.T.: Well the president had a huge role what the members of the committee thought and how they were going to act. I have to say I’ve been very disappointed with the president's budget. Now we'll see a new budget but you and I know that the health care spending in the federal budget is completely unsustainable, it's driving the deficits in the future. You can't have these giant programs growing at much faster than the rate of the economy and yet the president's been unwilling to offer substantive reforms that are going to change that dynamic.

J.B.: That's the part we disagree on. The president has $135 billion in Medicare cuts in the budget he presented to the supercommittee.* That's real money. So again, we can talk about which cuts are the right and wrong ones but it's wrong to say, flatly wrong to say –

P.T.: That doesn't change the dynamics of the program. Ratcheting down on health care providers after they've already been ratcheted down so doesn't change this dynamic.

J.B.:  It's prescription drug costs, but go ahead.

P.T.: What we've got to do is deal with the fundamental architecture of these programs. We've got structure that doesn't work, it's not going to work. Right now you've got basically three programs and interest, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and interest on our debt are half the entire budget, growing faster than anything else. The president really should be providing leadership here and I haven't seen it.

J.B.: Again, I just don't understand those comments in the light of the president's actual proposals to your committee, which have been for the more cuts than any Democrat has ever – in fact, he's put many democrats, myself included, way out of our comfort zone with proposed cuts to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

*The president’s budget to the supercommittee actually proposes $250 billion in total Medicare cuts – I was referring exclusively to the proposed savings on prescription drugs by allowing Medicare to bargain with drug manufacturers for lower prices.

Again, this isn’t an unusual exchange, but I was struck by it.  Sen. Toomey’s claim is not just a shading of what happened. It's not just an unfavorable interpretation.  It’s the opposite of what happened; the president, much to the chagrin of many liberals, did exactly what the senator says he did not do.  Then, when challenged with simple facts, Toomey goes into this technical sounding rap about "the fundamental architecture of these programs," which I imagine only further confuses listeners.  

Interchanges like this reveal that one reason we’re as stuck as we are is that one side is clearly uninterested in compromise – in working together to solve problems.  But instead of saying that, they obfuscate, in this case accusing the other side of partisan inflexibility. To me, it's a trenchant example, because the senator’s claims are so clearly wrong.

It’s easy and tempting to get disgusted with such exchanges, throw up your hands in despair, and give up on the whole process.  But that’s exactly what the obfuscators want you to do.  I say we piss them off and pay attention.

Jared Bernstein is a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. From 2009 to 2011, he was the Chief Economist and Economic Adviser to Vice President Joe Biden, executive director of the White House Task Force on the Middle Class, and a member of President Obama’s economic team.

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