WASHINGTON - Government leaders past and present gathered in Washington Tuesday to do what they do best about the nation's deficit: talk.
At an annual "fiscal summit" in a capital city that seems almost comically unable to function, much less take action to trim benefit programs and defense spending or raise taxes to close a crippling budget gap, a crowd of the converted listened to Washington elite: Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, former President Bill Clinton, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R., Ohio), members of a failed deficit "supercommittee," and the chairman and top Democrat on the House Banking Committee.
There was universal agreement. The deficit is bad and Washington really, really needs to fix it. Fast.
What was lacking was any agreement on how to do it, and certainly no expectation that the warring tribes in Washington will do anything meaningful to tackle trillion-dollar deficits before the election.
The summit is hosted by Pete Peterson, who has staked $1 billion of his Wall Street fortune on a foundation dedicated to educating the public on the perils of the deficit. Peterson's events tend to attract many of the same people time after time, including a number of people who are full-time, professional deficit hawks like Maya MacGuineas of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget and Bob Bixby of the Concord Coalition.
The crowd was smaller this year - lots of space at tables for a lunch of pan-seared chicken breast on a mirepoix of spring vegetables - and there was a lot of resignation among participants that not much of anything might get done about trillion dollar-plus deficits before the elections in November.
Boehner made the top headline at this year's summit by declaring that when it comes time for Congress to raise the nation's borrowing cap he will again insist on spending cuts and budget reforms exceeding the amount of the debt increase to offset it. He also promised a vote on renewing trillions of dollars in tax cuts passed during the Bush administration, prompting a predictable response from top House Democrat Nancy Pelosi of California.
"Republicans are once again choosing millionaires over the middle class," Pelosi said in a statement.
That kind of partisanship earns poor reviews from the Peterson conference crowd, where several people lamented the recent primary loss of Indiana Republican Sen. Richard G. Lugar to a tea party-backed candidate, State Treasurer Richard Mourdock, who has vowed to come to Washington to fight, not compromise.