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A Tale of Two Illinois Democrats

Adam Newman | Tuesday, February 22, 2011

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” The opening line of Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities” accurately describes the situation that two Democrats from Illinois, Sen. Richard Durbin and Rep. Jan Schakowsky, experienced as they participated in President Obama’s debt commission in 2010.

It was the best of times: during 2010 both politicians were at the peak of their political careers. Durbin was the second highest Democrat in the Senate, while Schakowsky was a lieutenant to then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, allowing her more influence than other members with equal seniority. Both Durbin and Schakowsky possessed excellent job security: Durbin won re-election in 2008 with 68 percent of the vote and Schakowsky won re-election in 2010 with 66 percent of the vote.

It was the worst of times: During 2010, American unemployment was 10 percent, the economy was weak and long-term fiscal issues loomed: the national debt was an unprecedented $13 trillion and the budget deficit exceeded $1 trillion. In January 2010, Republican Sen. Judd Gregg and Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad proposed an 18-member Senate “debt commission” that would propose deficit reduction solutions. However, seven Republican co-sponsors withdrew their support for the commission days before the vote, and the commission failed to pass.

Consequently, President Obama created an 18-member Presidential debt commission by executive order. The President appointed former Republican Sen. Alan Simpson and former Clinton Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles to co-chair the commission. In addition to the co-chairs, the President appointed four non- politicians and allowed the Democrat and Republican leaders in both houses of Congress to each appoint three members to the commission. The commission was tasked with proposing solutions to decrease budget deficits to 3 percent of GDP (the 2010 budget deficit was around 10 percent of GDP). Both Sen. Durbin and Rep. Schakowsky were placed on the commission.

The President’s commission worked together for six months. Their work culminated on Dec. 1, 2010, when the co-chairs released the proposal, titled “The Moment of Truth”. The “Moment of Truth” contained many politically unpopular proposals including: cuts to entitlement spending, raising the retirement age, cuts to defense, closing tax loopholes, and reforming the government workforce. If fully implemented, the proposal would slash $4 trillion from deficits and decrease the budget deficit to 2.3 percent of GDP by 2020. The proposal would have stabilized the national debt by 2014 and decreased the debt to 60 percent of GDP by 2023. (Today, the national debt is nearly 100 percent of GDP and still growing.)

Ultimately, the proposal only received eleven votes, three short of the fourteen votes required for the measure to move forward towards the legislative process. Rep. Schakowsky was one of the members who voted against the proposal. In defense of her position, she stated in a release: “[The] proposal would have serious consequences for lower and middle class Americans, and that is why I cannot support it.” Sen. Durbin, who shares a common progressive ideology with Rep. Schakowsky, voted for the proposal. He explained his decision in an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune: “The question my closest political friends are asking is this: Why is a progressive like Dick Durbin voting for this deficit commission report? [I believe] all politicians, left or right, Democrat or Republican, have to acknowledge the deficit crisis our nation faces … It’s time for all of us to come together to make hard choices. I am ready to do my part.” America’s federal government currently borrows 40 cents for every dollar spent. This level of borrowing is unsustainable and will eventually lead to the devaluation of American Treasury Bonds. Devaluation could spark a debt crisis large enough to drag a weak economy into a new recession. Former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan articulated this well in light of the failed passage of “The Moment of Truth”: “I think something equivalent to what Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson put out is going to be passed by the Congress. The only question is, is it before or after a bond market crisis?”

If America is to succeed in solving its fiscal issues, an unprecedented level of political courage is necessary. Success will mean politicians voting for politically unpopular and imperfect pieces of legislation. Success will mean Republicans doing the unthinkable: raising taxes, and success will mean Democrats doing the unthinkable: cutting spending (especially entitlement spending). Durbin did the unthinkable. Schakowsky didn’t.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” is perhaps the most famous opening line in a novel. Many people though, are unfamiliar with the second line in “A Tale of Two Cities” — ­”it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness.” There may not be a better line to contrast Sen. Durbin and Rep. Schakowsky.

Adam Newman is a sophomore finance major and can be reached at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.