A modest proposal

An open letter to Harry Reid:

I see from the dispatches out of Washington, D.C. that you’ve had some trouble negotiating a way to avoid falling off the fiscal cliff. Republicans seem unwilling to agree to raise taxes the top income earners, and you and President Barack Obama insist on it.

Perhaps a bit of compromise is in order? And by compromise, of course, I mean bluff calling. It could work like this: Republicans constantly assert the problem with deficits and debts is not revenue, but spending. If we didn’t spend so much, we could reduce the deficit and, eventually, pay back the debt on our way to a balanced budget.

Now, you and I both know that you could cut every single dollar of discretionary spending and all but $51 billion of the $700 billion defense budget and still only break even. But if Republicans have demonstrated anything, they’ve demonstrated a fondness for the grand rhetorical gesture.

So, why not give them what they want? Instead of offering up minor cuts here and there, go big. (I know you want to save Social Security and Medicare as is, so for now we’ll keep those programs off the table.)

Instead, why not say this: “OK, Republicans. We’ve heard you on the spending issue. And so here’s what we’re offering. Let’s eliminate the Department of Commerce. Sure, that only saves us $9.3 billion, but government is way too big and it’s time to do some trimming. We can also axe the Office of the Trade Representative ($51.2 million) and the Small Business Administration ($985 million), while we’re at it. Nothing but corporate welfare, there.

“And let’s not stop there. One of your primary candidates, Ron Paul, had some excellent ideas on saving money. One of them — end the drug war — caught our fancy. So let’s legalize all drugs, which means we can eliminate the Drug Enforcement Administration ($2 billion), the Office of National Drug Control Policy ($23.4 million) and its programs ($354.9 million). We could also cut a bunch from the Coast Guard’s budget, since they won’t need to do drug interdiction anymore, and maybe make some cash by selling newly unneeded ships to enthusiasts. And think of the cash states will save on law enforcement, prosecutors and prisons when drug offenses aren’t crimes any more.

“And you know what else? Our defense budget is about $700 billion. Now that we’re leaving Afghanistan, we could trim that back considerably. But why not start by simply eliminating all the spending on private military contractors and then redeploy soldiers from unnecessary foreign bases to do those jobs instead.

“So, what do you say, Republicans?”

And the Republicans would say … what?

More than likely, they’d say no deal. They don’t want to eliminate business boosters like Commerce and the SBA. They don’t want to end the drug war. And they sure as hell don’t want to see contracts to private military operations go away. When cuts to Commerce were proposed by the Obama administration, noted conservative Rush Limbaugh was heard to lament that the Democrats were trying to cut the only pro-business part of the government!

Certainly, Republicans will counter with ideas such as getting rid of the U.S. Department of Education, the Environmental Protection Agency, Housing and Urban Development and, of course, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

So what we’d see is another fight over who should benefit from government: those who already have money or those who don’t.

Don’t think of it as yet another stalemate between the two parties, senator. Don’t think of it as wasted time. Think of it as an elegant way to underscore your negotiating position. Plus, when they slam you for being intransigent, you can say, “Hey, I offered you some cuts.”

Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist and author of the blog SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at 387-5276 or SSebelius@reviewjournal.com.

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