Time for an honest debate on the deficit

“Hoyer: Raising taxes a realistic option,” read a headline in thehill.com on March 1. That’s strictly accurate, but it’s not a fair characterization of what I said about fiscal responsibility, or of the steps America needs to take to get out of crippling, record debt. The truth is that the only budget-balancing approach that can succeed, both substantively and politically, is an evenhanded one: one that considers both raising revenues and cutting spending.

Revenue raisers, 1986-style tax simplification, a new retirement age, more progressive Social Security and Medicare benefits, greater scrutiny of defense spending — all of those, and more, need to be on the table. They belong on Congress’s agenda, and on the agenda of the bipartisan fiscal commission appointed by President Barack Obama. And they belong in the national conversation, because without public understanding of the consequences and gravity of our fiscal danger, and the range of realistic solutions for combating it, there won’t be enough political will to take on the hard choices that responsibility requires.

So why do I object to The Hill’s headline? After all, the story went on to report that I spoke about a balanced solution. The problem is that highlighting one part of that solution for maximal attention creates a misleading perception of what budget-balancing will actually require. The truth is that we can’t balance the budget through tax increases alone, because any tax increase large enough to get us out of debt on its own is a political non-starter.

In the same way, we can’t realistically balance the budget through entitlement cuts alone, as we see from the Republican leaders who run away from their colleague Rep. Paul Ryan’s (Wis.) cut-heavy budget roadmap, even though it’s the logical outcome of conservative rhetoric of simultaneously lowering taxes and deficits. Looking at only one side of the equation short-circuits the fiscal conversation before it has a chance to begin.

I understand that it’s in the nature of headline-writing to highlight the most sensational facet of a story. At least The Hill didn’t make anything up — that honor goes to “Fox and Friends,” which reported on my proposal like this: “Some Democrats want you to hand over 70 percent of everything you make ... House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer says the only solution is probably to raise taxes—maybe on the wealthy. But if you do the math, that means raising taxes on those earning more than $250,000. If you’re in that category, your taxes would go up to about 70 percent.”

I could spend the rest of this piece running down the list of everything that makes that quote ridiculous: that Fox is dishonestly assuming that raising revenues is the only deficit solution, when I clearly said it wasn’t; that Fox is too economically illiterate to understand the difference between a marginal tax rate and a total tax rate; that it wants to convince its viewers that the top marginal rate falls on everyone, not just the richest Americans; and that I’ve repeatedly made clear that the responsibility for getting out of debt belongs to all of us, not just the wealthy.

But the point is this: balancing our budget is remarkably hard —and it is hard precisely because, as soon as anyone comes up with a concrete solution, partisans on the other side are eager to distort, demagogue and parody it beyond all recognition. We’ve all seen it happen, again and again. It’s one of the most popular Washington games, and one of the easiest, and I won’t pretend that only conservatives indulge in it. And after a while, the message gets through — it’s much safer to keep your head down. That’s why Congress loves easy choices. That’s why we’re in debt. That’s what’s threatening to keep us there.

We can go along scoring cheap points on tough issues for a long time—but not indefinitely, because the day is coming when America will owe more money than the value of its entire economy. Maybe “Fox and Friends” thinks the day of reckoning will never come. That’s what Greece thought.

Holding off that day is a question of balance sheets and tax rates and budget lines. But there’s also a deeper question: Which is stronger — our love of the empty partisan fight, or our willingness to look a common danger in the face and act on it, together?

I still think it’s the latter. But we’re going to find out sooner than we think.

Hoyer is the House majority leader.