Journalist Dana Milbank

The Washington Post opinion writer explains what would happen if the congressional supercommittee fails to come up with a plan for the looming deficit crisis.

Named one of the top political journalists in the U.S. by Columbia Journalism Review, Washington Post opinion writer Dana Milbank has also been called one of DC's most feared columnists. He joined the newspaper at the beginning of the '00 presidential campaign and covered George W. Bush's first term in office and the '04 election. Milbank was previously a senior editor of The New Republic and a Wall Street Journal staff reporter and has written for The New York Times Magazine and other publications. He's also the author of three political books.


Tavis: For more tonight on the looming deadline for the congressional deficit supercommittee and the impact on the 2012 presidential race, pleased to be joined from Washington by Dana Milbank, widely read columnist for “The Washington Post” whose most recent book is “Tears of a Clown.” Dana, good to have you back on this program, sir.

Dana Milbank: Great to be with you, Tavis.

Tavis: I’m one of the persons, by way of confession, who said from the very beginning, Dana, that I did not see how a committee evenly split among Democrats and Republicans could do what a larger House and Senate body could not do. Please tell me that I was wrong about that and that we’re going to get this problem solved in the next few days.

Milbank: I really wish I could tell you that, but I just don’t see it. I think you were prophetic in your forecast. You never know what can happen in the next week or so, but the signs aren’t there. You have the Republicans saying look, we’re not going to go any further on the tax increases, you’ve got the Democrats not necessarily even putting forth any new plans.

I was up on the Hill this morning and they had a group of 40 lawmakers, Republicans, Democrats, both chambers. They said there’s 150 of us who want to have this big compromise.

Well, that’s great. The problem is there’s 535 lawmakers, so there’s nowhere near a majority of people who really are willing to make the compromise, accept things they don’t want, accept cuts to Medicare and Social Security for the Democrats, accept some serious tax increases for the Republicans.

So it’s looking a lot like the committee’s just going to fail because of the absence of any sort of real leadership help for them.

Tavis: So for those who’ve not been following this story, the effort at compromise fails, and then what happens automatically?

Milbank: Well, for those people not paying attention, they’re in good company. There’s a poll out today saying 88 percent of Americans are paying no attention, or only the slightest bit of attention to the whole thing, so they’re in perfectly good company.

If they don’t come up with something, or if they come up with something and then the House or the Senate votes it down, presumably next month, what happens is eventually there are going to be automatic cuts to the budget. It’s a terrible word called “sequestration,” and it’s basically something that nobody really wants to happen, because it’s just sort of willy-nilly cuts through all these programs, whether it’s Defense or the social programs.

Nobody really wants that to happen. The problem is nobody seems to have the gumption to do what they’re supposed to be doing.

Tavis: When you say eventually those cuts will come in across the board automatically, eventually means when?

Milbank: Well, it’s sort of phased in over time. It begins to happen in about six months or so. I suspect that Congress being Congress, they will find this to punt this and postpone the pain as long as possible, and certainly the majority of the cuts we’re talking about won’t happen until after the next presidential election, so they’ll feel some comfort in pushing it off till then.

Tavis: So whoever the ultimate Republican nominee is up against President Obama, what you’re suggesting to me now is that this issue really isn’t going to have any impact on the race for the White House next year?

Milbank: Well, sure it’s going to have some impact. They’ll still be debating about what to do about this looming deficit problem. Do you increase taxes or do you do it all through cuts to social programs, or the obvious answer being some combination of the two. So sure they’re going to be debating.

I just have a feeling unfortunately they’re not going to be debating what’s already been done, they’re going to manage to not do anything and have some other argument about what to do.

It’s true that no matter how the election turns out, it’s not that politics are going to change so substantially. We’re going to have the same problems and the same disagreements then. So the longer they wait, the harder this gets for everybody.

Tavis: So the easy headline, and I’m no copy writer, as you are, no columnist, but the easy headline, again, is “Gridlock in Washington.” The Republicans and Democrats can’t get anything done, there is no bipartisanship. That’s the easy headline.

But since you’ve spent so much time covering this and you’ve been on the Hill, take me a little bit deeper. What’s really happening here? What does it say about leadership or the lack thereof? Beyond the headline of gridlock, what are you seeing, Dana?

Milbank: Right. No, it’s a good question, Tavis, because I really feel it’s almost like people here have given up. Last night, we’re a week away from this big deadline where something cataclysmic happens, you had Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader and Harry Reid, the Senate Democratic leader, leaving their offices to go home for the night at 7:00 p.m.

It’s almost like they’re saying, well, there’s nothing we can do, who cares? We’ll live to fight another day. It’s almost like we’re beyond the bickering now and the fighting and we’ve actually reached the point where people have actually given up and given in to the sense that Washington is completely broken and nothing can happen here. The only way something seems to happen is through an absolute crisis.

Tavis: All right, so to your point now about an absolute crisis, tell me – put another way, disabuse me of this notion, if you can, that given what we have seen as the result of austerity in Europe that whenever that eventual that you referenced earlier shows up, whenever that eventual arise and these cuts, if nothing else is done, those cuts kick in automatically, if you think we’ve got protestors in the streets now, if you think Americans are upset now, how ugly can this get when Americans really start to feel the impact of what these across-the-board cuts will mean if Congress doesn’t do its job?

Milbank: You’re not kidding. A block from our offices here, heading over towards the White House, you’ve got a few dozen people camping out in tents, but this is a very small movement compared to the people who will be touched when they actually start taking away these programs.

We’re not necessarily talking Social Security and Medicare, at least at first, but there’s a whole lot of other things that the government does that people are assuming it’s going to continue to do, and a lot of people are going to be very surprised at what they find.

Tavis: To your earlier point finally here, you referenced, somewhat jokingly, knowing Congress as you know Congress, they’ll figure a way to push this down the road, but at some point we’re going to discover that we can’t kick the can down the road anymore because there ain’t no more road left on which to kick the can. So what happens if we get to the end of the road?

Milbank: This is the central problem, Tavis, and that is it seems to me that the only thing that forces us into action – look, the 2001 terrorist attacks forced some action. We got together and they did things for a few months together. The collapse in 2008 forced some action.

But nothing has really fundamentally changed the system, so it suggests to me that something worse than those two events needs to occur to finally shake things up here. Some people talk about a third-party candidate changing things, some other change to the system. It’s hard not to give in to cynicism at this point in Washington, just because there’s no easy or even difficult solution on the horizon.

Tavis: Yeah. I’ve always been clear to make a distinction between cynicism and skepticism, but increasingly, watching this crap –

Milbank: Right, it’s –

Tavis: – that line is getting more and more blurred for me, Dana.

Milbank: Exactly. I’m trying not to do it myself, but it’s – (laughs) it gets harder each day when you see this.

Tavis: Yeah. Glad to have you on, as always. He’s a brilliant columnist with “The Washington Post,” Dana Milbank. Dana, thanks for your insights.

Milbank: Thanks a lot, Tavis.

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Last modified: November 17, 2011 at 12:17 pm