What the Deficit Commission Report has in common with Jennifer Aniston
Here’s a question that came up in a conversation with a senior U.S. government official this afternoon: which major think piece released last year is likely to produce fewer substantive changes, the report of the Deficit Commission or the State Department’s QDDR? It’s the kind of question only a wonk could love, but the answer ...
Here’s a question that came up in a conversation with a senior U.S. government official this afternoon: which major think piece released last year is likely to produce fewer substantive changes, the report of the Deficit Commission or the State Department’s QDDR? It’s the kind of question only a wonk could love, but the answer may be worth rooting around for nonetheless.
At first blush, it seems likely that the results will be a tie. The QDDR called for a significant reorganization at the State Department but frankly, the State Department seems likely to spend most of this year (and probably the next several years) battling for money. The Deficit Commission has become Jennifer Aniston of American politics. Almost everyone can find something likable in it. A few people are inclined to get serious about it. But no one wants to marry it.
Look a little deeper though and the answer is that it’s no contest. The QDDR was worthy but the issues it raised, largely about the way the State Department and US AID programs operate are largely peripheral. What’s more there will be less money for those programs going forward in almost any scenario you can imagine. Which means the vastly overstated impact they have will be diminished further. The Deficit Commission Report however, has already changed the debate. Because like it or not, it is the first fairly serious discussion of America’s debt reduction needs that has taken place in Washington…and all subsequent discussions will be, like it or not, measured against it.
That’s not good news for the President of the United States who spent an hour this morning seeking to defend the nothing burger of a budget proposal rolled out by the White House this week. Obama seemed awkward because he clearly both understands the urgency and scope of America’s fiscal problems and wants to do something about them…later. A smart Washington observer with Hill experience with whom I discussed it today explained it as Obama wanting to avoid being trapped by the Republicans…and above all else wanting to get re-elected. So he is punting…to use one of the most popular verbs associated with the budget in the insta-analyses that followed it’s relief…the hard questions until after he gets re-elected.
Now, of course, the door has been opened for Republicans to one up the President by offering slightly deeper cuts than the minimal ones he offered. Theirs will certainly be more cynical and ideologically driven. And the American people will be treated to the spectacle of everyone being able to identify the problem and no one being will to do anything about it yet again.
But there the deficit commission report will come in handy. While it may not be applied it will be standing there, poking out of the swampland of the Potomac, as a measuring stick for anyone to use. (Much as Jennifer Aniston is for the legions of likable actresses with good hair who want to make it in those sit-coms that take place outside of Washington.) Cuts can be measured against its recommendations. Speed of deficit reduction can be measured against its stated goals. The specifics of what it advocated will be less important than the fact of the overall degree of the measures it felt were necessary. And while I fear the leadership in Washington is likely to fall far short of that metric, we’re better off that it’s out there.
As for the QDDR, it’s worthy. But it tiptoes around the most important new reality of 21st Century America: Foreign aid begins at home. In other words, what’s most important for U.S. national security interests worldwide is making money and saving money rather than spending money. Even staunch foreign aid advocates-and I count myself in that group-have to recognize that if we live in a world in which we are going to have to come to grips with defense cuts and cuts to entitlements (and we do and we are) then international programs are not only certain also to be rolled back but they will go first. Further, programs that remain are going to have to show a much clearer return on investment than they have in the past.
Which is to say that the most important analysis of future State Department operations done last year was not actually the QDDR but was instead the Deficit Commission Report. It was also, as it happens, the most important version of the wide number of reports on foreign threats faced by the U.S. done by the national security community. Because there is clearly no foreign power that is capable of doing more damage to America than our own budget bumblers here in Washington.
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