The Second Coming of Pete Peterson

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The Faux-Populist CTJ Called "The False Messiah" in 1994

The Washington Post has been embroiled in a scandal concerning its publication on December 31 of a story written by the Fiscal Times, a news organization funded by Peter G. Peterson, the out-spoken and obscenely wealthy deficit-hawk. Peterson, of course, happens to favor a particular approach to deficit-reduction, including cuts to Social Security and Medicare and a commission that can make it easier for Congress to enact such cuts without much debate. Policy analysts and commentators have slammed the Washington Post and Peterson, who seems to favor tax cuts for investment income despite his obsession with budget deficits.

We cannot resist pointing out that CTJ complained about Peterson long before it became fashionable. Read CTJ director Robert McIntyre's take-down of Peterson, written in 1994, and the detailed back-and-forth between the two that follows.

Peterson, a cabinet secretary under President Nixon, has written books and given talks for years about taming budget deficits. His audience probably shrank during the fiscally responsible era at the end of the Clinton administration. But of course, deficits came back under President George W. Bush. And now, the man CTJ called a "false messiah" seems to be enjoying a second coming.

The Ill-Advised Budget Commission Idea

The headline of the Washington Post story in question is "Support Grows for Tackling Nation's Debt." The proposal described in the article was put forth by the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee, Kent Conrad (D-ND) and Judd Gregg (R-NH), to create a commission that would make recommendations on how to tackle the budget deficit and put those recommendations on a fast-track to enactment with no committee hearings and no amendments.

Sources tell us that, contrary to the article's headline, there is little support in Congress for this particular commission proposal. And with good reason. One budget expert recently explained to a group of advocates that it only makes sense to create such a commission when Congress has made a decision but can't settle on the details. But it makes no sense to say a commission is needed to settle fundamental questions like how much money the government should spend and how revenue should be collected. Those are questions that elected lawmakers should be able to decide.

For example, when Congress decided it needed to close some military bases several years ago, it faced the obvious problem that no Senator wanted to recommend the closure of a base in his or her state. So Congress reasonably decided to create a commission to study the matter and draw up a list, and then the House and Senate would simply vote up or down, with no committee hearings or amendments.

But it's a far different situation when Congress has not decided some very fundamental issues and is trying to send the controversy to someone else. How much money should the government spend? What programs need to be cut to fit within a budget? Should Social Security and Medicare be cut? How? How much should we collect in taxes? What sorts of taxes should we have? These seem, quite frankly, like the sort of questions that lawmakers are elected to deal with.

The Washington Post Scandal

But none of this is what made the Washington Post story scandalous. The scandal is that the Post published the story as a piece of objective reporting even though it was written by an organization that almost certainly has an ideological bent on the subject matter. The article quotes the Concord Coalition without noting that it, too, receives funding from the foundation Peterson established in 2008 to spread his message. And it cites a report from the Peterson-Pew Commission on Budget Reform, which is partially named after the same Peter G. Peterson, although this is not noted.

The Post's Ombudsman, Andrew Alexander, laid out the evidence against his paper but concluded nonetheless that the Post was not publishing propaganda as news. But no matter how you look at it, the degree to which certain ideas make their way into the public dialogue seems to have a lot more to do with who has a fortune to spend than the soundness of the ideas themselves.

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