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Debt deal: We can, and must, do better

By Maya MacGuineas, Special to CNN
  • The debt-ceiling deal feels like a shakedown, says Maya MacGuineas
  • We were so close to addressing our nation's fiscal troubles, she says
  • But preferring to negotiate down instead of up, everyone started pulling back, she says
  • MacGuineas says she hopes the new special committee will exceed its mandate

Editor's note: Maya MacGuineas is president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget and director of the Fiscal Policy Program at the New America Foundation, a nonprofit public policy institute.

(CNN) -- Picture a negotiation with your boss that goes something like this:

You walk in with dynamite strapped to your body and demand a raise.

Nope, he says, no raise -- that's off the table.

Fine, you say, then I am not going to do any work.

I can take that, he says, as long as it goes hand in hand with no benefits for you.

All righty then, you counter, but I'll be stealing office supplies.

Fine. Fine. You shake and you have a deal.

That's how the debt-ceiling deal feels to me.

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We started last winter with a proposal from the Bowles-Simpson deficit commission to cut $4 trillion from the budget, stabilize the debt, fix Social Security, get a start on further health care savings and overhaul the tax system. The "Gang of Six" kept the ball rolling and generated tremendous support from their colleagues in the Senate. House Speaker John Boehner and President Barack Obama toiled away to produce a "Big Deal" that would similarly address all parts of the budget.

There was momentum -- momentum toward a deal that could have truly addressed our nation's fiscal troubles. We were this close.

But preferring to negotiate down instead of up, everyone started pulling back.

Nope on taxes from the Republicans -- even if it meant cleaning up all the egregious spending through the tax code, lowering rates and expanding the economy and generating revenues.

Nope on Social Security said the Democrats, even though the program is unsustainable, as its own trustees remind us every year, and it unnecessarily provides benefits that are larger for people who need them less.

Nope on taxes said the Republicans. (On this one, they like to say it over and over again.)

Nope on Medicare said the Democrats, even though the astronomical growth in this program is pushing out the spending on public investments and the programs for the poor they profess to want to protect.

And so this inauspicious deal -- slated to save about half as much as we need to -- was locked up with a "trigger" mechanism that exempted all these things as well. A trigger, by the way, that will not even kick in until after the election.

We are going to have to do better than this.

I am still holding out hope that the new special committee will exceed expectations and exceed its mandate. If these 12 members really steep themselves in the risks of inaction, or doing too little, and run through the options for coming up with the needed $4 trillion to $5 trillion, perhaps they will break out of their taking-things-off-the-table mentality, and starting putting things back on.

They could take the time to come to understand each other's priorities better: Republicans caring about not expanding government to the exceedingly high levels it is projected to grow to and ensuring that the tax system is pro-growth. It makes sense. And Democrats wanting to preserve public investments in things such as human capital and infrastructure and counterbalance the tremendous growth in income inequality we have seen in recent years -- it makes sense, too.

Granted partisanship, the upcoming election and outside interest groups may all work against this. But we can avoid fixing the real problems for only so long, so maybe, just maybe, we can make this deal real.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Maya MacGuineas.

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