July 14, 2010 | Commentary on Budget and Spending, Deficits

An Arms-Control Approach to Deficit Reduction

If President Obama really wants to get the long-term deficit under control, he should replace his White House budget strategists with arms control experts.

It's not that the deficit threatens to spark a nuclear holocaust. But the way that arms controllers approach negotiations could prove quite useful in addressing the deficit.

Here's why. Arms controllers understand what's needed to step back from the brink. Washington's budget negotiators - facing a debt catastrophe - haven't figured that out.

For starters, the arms guys don't just listen to the rhetoric pouring from both parties. They know to explore each side's real - often unspoken - concerns and desires. To fix the long-term budget problem, we need to do the same.

So, for instance, when those on the left resist reducing Medicare or Social Security benefits to the likes of Warren Buffett, it's not that they suddenly have affection for the rich. An arms negotiator would look for the underlying fear. And it's that making these programs even more income-based could undermine middle- and upper-income support for them, leading perhaps to their demise. Understanding that concern, the skilled negotiator would urge the folks on the right to come up with a plausible way to allay that worry.

Similarly, the left is frustrated when conservatives say any tax hike is a non-starter. A skilled negotiator would point out that some on the right are open to some revenue-raising policies, such as sales of government assets or tax reforms that would boost economic growth and hence tax revenue.

The arms controller would further tease out the fear of rightists that such "good" revenue would simply "feed the beast" of future spending - that it wouldn't actually be joined at the hip with spending controls. It's like the resistance to a Mideast "land for peace" deal: Israelis fear it means they will give up the land today but never get the peace tomorrow.

Arms controllers know that you can't just focus on the first stage of a potential agreement. You have to agree on the long-term goals both parties want to reach before either side will take the first step.

So they'd tell us to fix the budget process. Congress uses an arbitrary 10-year "budget window" with nobody required to show publicly what the impact of any change will be after a decade. That's why entitlement programs - which, if left unreformed, will spark a ruinous fiscal tsunami 15 or 20 years from now - are not even part of the lawmakers' budget discussions.

If arms controllers ran the budget process, they would fix these rules of the budget game. And they'd do it in such a way that those on both the right and the left would have an incentive to work together on answers.

For example, they'd alter the budget "horizon," so that the long-term results of proposed changes in spending and revenues would be visible. That way, neither the right nor the left would worry that the other side could hide the long-term consequences of their initiatives. As a bonus, with that rule change in place, anyone proposing short-term pain would be able to point more easily to the long-term gain.

To minimize the distrust and intransigence that comes from "You go first," arms controllers would draw up a proposal under which each side's agreed concessions and demands go forward together, not one after the other. To introduce "trust but verify" into that procedure, and so avoid one side reneging, we'd need to actually bank the savings at each stage, so each step is certified as accomplished before either side is required to take the next.

Arms controllers also know a thing or two about summits. They know that, when meetings among deeply divided parties are held under the glare of lights and TV cameras, the proceedings devolve into political grandstanding. That's why Mr. Obama's "Health Summit" was such a partisan failure. The president made a lot more progress defusing the policeman-Harvard professor imbroglio when he simply invited each side to sit down for a quiet, private chat over beer in the Rose Garden.

Take it from the arms guys, Mr. President. A few White House "beer summits" with Republicans and Democrats would do a lot to build bipartisan support for tackling the debt and deficit crisis.

Stuart M. Butler is the Heritage Foundation's vice president for domestic and economic policy.

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First appeared in The Washington Times