WASHINGTON — The report of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility is a cynic's paradise, a fat target for all those who claim to know how Washington really works.
That's why the smart money says the commission's report, which lays out a path to slice the federal deficit by $4 trillion over the next decade, will be DOA on Capitol Hill. By this reasoning, the commission will win bipartisan praise for its hard work but see its product tossed aside as partisan lines harden in the 112th Congress.
Maybe all that is correct. But as the commission wrapped up its final session on Friday, Alice Rivlin, budget director under former President Bill Clinton and a longtime advocate for fiscal responsibility, offered some useful advice to the skeptics and the disbelievers: "Give democracy a chance. . . . Lay off and give it a chance."
It's true that a commission that began with only limited authority failed in its most significant goal, which was to win at least 14 votes among the 18 members. Fourteen votes were needed to send the package to Congress as an official recommendation and force a vote on the proposals, a mix of spending cuts and tax increases.
It's also true that prominent members of Congress on the committee took a walk on the commission report. That group included Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who will chair the Budget Committee in the next Congress, and Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., the current chairman of the Finance Committee.
But that doesn't measure the full value of the commission's work. Andy Stern, the former president of the Service Employees International Union, who voted against the plan, may have put it best when he said, "We have changed the issue from whether there should even be a fiscal plan for this country to what is the best fiscal plan for this country, and that is an enormous, tectonic paradigm shift that I think is enormously important."
The final vote, 11 ayes and seven nays, represented a significant victory for co-chairs Alan Simpson, the former Republican senator from Wyoming, and Erskine Bowles, who was White House chief of staff in the Clinton administration.
Winning 14 of 18 votes would equate with a 78 percent supermajority. Winning 11 of 18 means that the panel achieved a 60 percent supermajority, significantly better than the doubters had predicted not so long ago. The bipartisan outcome should send a powerful signal to President Barack Obama and members of Congress to start tackling the deficit problem beginning next year rather than continuing to ignore it.
The votes by the dozen elected officials on the panel reflected the separate cultures of the House and Senate. Five of the six House members voted against the report, while five of six senators voted for it, however reluctantly.
Among House members, two liberal Democrats and three conservative Republicans voted no, a spillover from the deep partisanship that prevails in that body. But the lone "yes" was notable. Rep. John Spratt, D-S.C., who chairs the Budget Committee in the current Congress but who lost his bid for re-election, put his stamp of approval, with qualifications, on the final document.
More telling were the votes from the senators. It was virtually a given that Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., and outgoing Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H. — the chairman and the ranking Republican on the Senate Budget Committee — would back the plan. It was their idea for a national commission that spawned the process.
But who would have predicted a few weeks ago that liberal Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and conservative Sens. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, would find common ground in a plan that cuts spending, raises taxes and calls for significant changes in Social Security?
Several of those who backed the plan did so with reservations. Durbin even said he would vote against the same plan if it came to the floor of the Senate. But those who voted against the plan also said they did so reluctantly.
Stern devoted the bulk of his remarks to praising the commission and calling on Congress to take a vote on the proposal and on other plans that found alternative ways to bring down the deficit.
Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., offered her own plan, a credible approach from a liberal perspective. She was forceful in urging that, while the United States must be serious about tackling the deficit problem, more attention should be be paid to the growing income inequality in the United States.
Ryan, though he rejected the plan, has pledged to take many of the commission's proposals and put them into the budget that Republicans will prepare in the next Congress.
The odds may still be stacked against action in Congress.
"Some of my closest friends and allies in politics can't understand this," Durbin said. "They have said, 'Why is a progressive like Dick Durbin voting for this deficit commission report?' Well, here's why: I believe that politicians on the left and the right, Democrats and Republicans, have to acknowledge the deficit crisis our nation faces."
Other nations are learning the consequences of failing to deal with debt and deficits, Greece and Ireland being the two most prominent examples. Britain's coalition government has tackled that country's problems with painful budget cuts that have prompted violent protests on the streets of London. Neither inaction nor action seems to offer an attractive course for politicians.
The commission has shown, through its report and the debate and alternatives offered up in the process, that while the problems are severe, there are solutions, however difficult or distasteful. As the commission hands off those decisions to President Obama and Republican congressional leaders, Rivlin's advice to the cynics are worth remembering: Lay off, and give democracy a chance to work.