Still denial on deficit

Regardless of whether President Obama’s fiscal responsibility commission has enough votes today to approve a deficit reduction plan, co-chairman Erskine Bowles thinks the commission has “won big.”

“The era of deficit denial in Washington is over,” he declared.

If only. There’s still plenty of denial among Republican and Democratic lawmakers and among the public, making the prospect for serious reform unlikely.

The National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform was supposed to vote Wednesday on a proposal aimed at achieving about $3.8 trillion in deficit reduction by 2020. But the vote was delayed to try to win more support from the commission members.

According to Obama’s order creating the commission, 14 of the 18 members must agree to send a plan to Congress. Unfortunately, that’s unlikely to happen.

Several Republican lawmakers on the commission are balking at proposed tax increases, such as raising the income cap on Social Security payroll taxes. They are in denial about the need to raise revenue in order to significantly reduce the deficit.

And most Democratic lawmakers oppose benefit cuts to entitlement programs. They are in denial about the need to reform Social Security and Medicare in order to deal with long-term unfunded liabilities.

Some notable exceptions are Sens. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., and Kent Conrad, D-N.D., the Republican and Democratic leaders of the Senate Budget Committee, and Sens. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and Mike Crapo, R- Idaho. They endorsed the plan as a needed step forward.

Though he doesn’t like everything in the plan, Conrad said he likes “even less where our country is headed without it.” But he added, “It would be much easier to say ‘no’ and to oppose this plan.”

That’s because most of the public is also in denial.

Though Americans say that reducing the federal deficit is one of their biggest concerns, they oppose most of the spending cuts and tax changes needed to accomplish that, according to a CNN poll. By large margins, those surveyed said that avoiding cuts in Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, college loans, and aid to farmers and unemployed workers was more important than reducing the deficit. Those surveyed also overwhelmingly opposed eliminating the mortgage-interest deduction or increasing the federal gasoline tax.

An Associated Press-CNBC poll did find majority support for eliminating the mortgage-interest deduction if it was in exchange for lower income-tax rates — but that wouldn’t help reduce the deficit.

A big part of the commission’s work is education. And media attention on the commission’s plan has raised awareness of the deficit problem and the shared sacrifices that are needed to address it.

But if commission co-chairman Bowles thinks that members of Congress and the public can’t keep pretending there is a pain-free solution to our nation’s financial woes, he is in denial, too.