Eric Cantor’s Approach to Budget Negotiations

On Thursday, Rep. Eric Cantor pulled out of budget talks led by Vice Pres. Joe Biden. In doing so, Cantor announced that negotiations had reached an impasse over tax increases. Basically, the Republicans in the House don’t want them, so they couldn’t be passed in that chamber. And Senate Democrats do want them, so they are necessary for a bill to clear the Senate. To an outside observer, that’s a fair reading of the difficulty of the budget talks.

But, of course, the point of the high level negotiations is to try to work out a compromise that doesn’t exist yet but which is necessary for the government to continue operating, trim the deficit, and avoid a default. Simply saying that it can’t be done isn’t productive and Cantor has received plenty of criticism. Ezra Klein has two cynical readings of Cantor’s move, both suggesting that Cantor is trying to dodge blame for what will either be a tough compromise or failed negotiation. James Fallows seconded Klein’s take, emphasizing Cantor’s timing: he pulled out after the cuts were chosen but before the tax increases were negotiated. Chris Cillizza has a more generous reading, suggesting that this is much more about the Republican Party’s negotiating tactics than a personal power play by Cantor. Personally, though I have no great love for Cantor, I’ve chosen to hold out hope for Cillizza’s reasoning.

But I’m still troubled by what’s transpired. The move seems to me to suggest that the House Republicans (or Cantor personally) weren’t negotiating in good faith. Agreeing on the specifics of the budget cuts, though obviously tricky, didn’t represent anything like the kind of sacrifice by House Republicans that it does for Democrats. Those negotiating knew that in exchange the Democrats would expect them to make the sacrifices in the form of tax increases. So to pull out after the easy half of the negotiations suggests they may have been operating in bad faith.

Or, maybe this is just a reasonable budget gambit and Cantor was serious about his call for the negotiations to move up the chain of command, continuing between Speaker Boehner and Pres. Obama. If so, there doesn’t seem to be any great foul here. Instead, it’s just an example of how difficult it can be at times to judge from the outside (and surrounded by political spin) when politicians are behaving appropriately. We should have a clearer idea in the coming days. Watch for any future statements by Cantor, who previously had been surprisingly generous in his comments about the negotiations led by Biden. If he continues to either keep his mouth shut or offer praise, I think that’s a good sign this is still being handled with seriousness and good faith.

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