WASHINGTON — If you want to understand why cutting the deficit is so hard, you can’t do much better than to look at the Business Roundtable.
The roundtable is one of the more moderate big-business lobbying groups. Its president is John Engler, the former Michigan governor, and its incoming chairman is James McNerney, chief executive of Boeing. When roundtable officials talk about the deficit, they use sober, common-sense language that can make them sound more reasonable than either political party.
But the roundtable is actually part of the problem.
Rhetoric aside, it consistently lobbies for a higher deficit. The roundtable defends corporate tax loopholes and even argues for new ones. It pushes for a lower corporate tax rate. It favors the permanent extension of the Bush tax cuts. It opposes a reduction in the tax subsidy for health insurance, a reduction that was part of the 2009 health reform bill. Oh, and the roundtable also favors new spending on roads, bridges and other infrastructure.
It’s easy to look at the squabbling politicians in Washington and decide that they are the cause of the country’s huge looming budget deficit. Certainly, they deserve some blame. The larger problem, though, is what you might call roundtable syndrome.
In short, there isn’t much of a constituency for deficit reduction. Sure, plenty of people and special-interest groups say that they are deeply worried about the deficit. But they are not lobbying for specific spending cuts or tax increases. They aren’t marshaling their resources to defend politicians who take tough stands, like President Barack Obama’s 2009 Medicare cuts or Rand Paul’s proposed military cuts.
Instead, many of the officially nonpartisan groups in Washington are even less fiscally responsible than the partisans. Public sector labor unions have fought changes to pensions and work rules that could lead to less expensive, more effective government. Private sector unions — along with the roundtable — have defended the huge tax subsidy for health insurance, which drives up health costs.
Labor groups have at least been willing to push for some tax increases. Today’s business groups struggle to come up with any specific deficit plan. Last year, the Business Council — a group of top corporate executives headed by Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase — and the roundtable released a 49-page plan that simultaneously warned that projected deficits would “retard future growth” and called for policies that would add hundreds of billions of dollars a year to the deficit. That’s the essence of roundtable syndrome.