Another Letter to Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid Photograph by Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images

Update: Corrects number of sitting senators who signed on to Simpson-Bowles.

Dear Senators Reid and McConnell,

This morning I read a letter to the two of you, signed by six senators. Half are Republican; half are Democrat. I am not aware of a response from either of you. I can understand this; the two of you probably get a lot of mail, and your staff might have mislaid it with all the other stuff Senators Levin and McCain doubtless send you on a daily basis. In which case: The six senators wish you to enact a bipartisan deficit-reduction package. They are worried. They are worried mostly about cuts the Pentagon would have to make if you fail to do this. This makes sense, given that Senators Levin and McCain serve as chair and ranking member, respectively, in your Armed Services Committee, where three of the other four senators sit as well. Those guys are probably always bugging you about defense appropriations. You know, with Lockheed Martin having contributed $16,000 to Senator McCain’s last campaign, and General Dynamics with $22,000 to Senator Levin in his. Not a lot of money, and by no means their biggest contributors. But you guys know how it is.

The letter shows that the senators are also worried about other things, in passing, such as the Obama administration’s report that the pending sequestration would “undermine investments vital to economic growth, threaten the safety and security of the American people, and cause severe harm to programs that would benefit the middle-class, seniors and children.” The senators write that they are committed to working together to resolve this and believe that “all ideas should be put on the table and considered,” and they suggest that you have the Congressional Budget Office and the Joint Committee on Taxation score any bipartisan proposals that would provide an alternative to sequestration, short term or long term. They do not specify which bipartisan proposals they’re talking about.

You are probably as perplexed as I am about this letter. Aren’t Carl Levin, John McCain, Jeanne Shaheen, Lindsey Graham, Sheldon Whitehouse, and Kelly Ayotte all U.S. Senators? Members of the world’s greatest deliberative body? Heirs to the Constitution’s Great Compromise, to the traditions of Daniel Webster and Henry Clay? As such, aren’t they vested with the right to propose legislation? Can’t they ask the CBO to score it themselves? They’d need your help getting it through the Senate, sure, but there’s a lot of work to be done before that happens. One presumes they’re talking about Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles’s report of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, negotiated over several months among Democrats, Republicans, and representatives from unions and industry. They’d need to get it turned into legislative language, but they could ask their colleague Tom Coburn for help. He’s a big booster of the report. And Senators Crapo and Durbin signed it, too. That’s nine senators so far, four Democrats and five Republicans. A bipartisan plan on the table! I know, right? Why are they bugging you with this when they could get it rolling themselves?

Here’s what you should do: Tell the six senators to pound sand. Suggest that they come back with scored, sponsored legislative language, because that’s what senators do. If they’re not doing that, what are they doing? Writing letters? Is letter writing in the Constitution? A good boss tells employees to arrive with solutions, not problems. That’s what you should tell them. Maybe you could be inspirational, tell them they have the power to be the change they want to see in the world. And if you, like I do, support the idea of a debt-reduction package that simplifies the tax code, raises some revenue, and starts to bring the debt-to-GDP ratio down without any sudden shocks, you can shove that baby right through the Senate and see what those populists in the House think. They’re always on you about failing to pass a budget. That would get their attention, right?

I know we’re in the middle of an election, but you’re legislators. You get a cloakroom and franking privileges and a special train underneath the Capitol. Those things are all awesome. Aren’t you supposed to legislate, too?


Brendan Greeley

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