I never cease to be frustrated that the current public policy debate is described as a contest of ideas: fiscal conservatives versus liberals. It is not just Republicans or Tea Partiers who believe that they are fiscal conservatives, no doubt sincerely. Democrats and liberals seem to accept this characterization at face value, as does most of the media.
The problem is that a heavy majority of the supposed fiscally conservative congressmen, although passionate about cutting government spending in the abstract, are in truth no better able to find specific dollars of budget cuts that they can support or defend to their constituents than are the Democrats. Factoring in their immutable desire to cut taxes, I believe that if the Republicans were in full control, we would have larger budget deficits in the coming years than if the Obama crowd retained power. This is what happened in a big way when Presidents Reagan and GW Bush took office promising to cut the debt while also cutting taxes. Spending, deficits, and debt soared during their terms, relative to their respective Democratic predecessors. There is no reason to think anything has changed.
The first thing the Republicans did after their congressional victories in the November election was achieve their precious extension of the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy. This extension will raise the budget deficit by more than all the domestic spending cuts that all of the Congressional freshmen have identified put together.
Next they turned to their campaign to kill Obamacare. It was a surprising achievement one year ago when President Obama managed to pass a health reform bill that simultaneously would improve medical treatment while bending down the cost curve in the long run (through such policies as persuading hospitals to cut down on unnecessary surgery and to reduce infections). But it is even more surprising that the conservatives can continue to get away with simultaneously tarring the reform as “death panels” while refusing to acknowledge that it will cut costs. Their plans for going back to our previous health care system include suspending their own rule that bills that would increase spending (as determined by the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office) must be paid for.
The zeal to cut funding for such tiny programs as the National Endowment for the Humanities and Planned Parenthood is accepted as evidence of the sincerity of the fiscal conservatives. I wish the Democrats would not fall for that bait. Their anguish over such cuts, while understandable, plays into the old narrative of big versus small government. The same with the bigger, but still small, categories of domestic spending such as food stamps. The Right reacts to such liberal anguish with glee, while the Center infers - less vindictively, but no more accurately - that such cuts are part of a painful but necessary fiscal adjustment. Losing the center is no way to put together a political majority.
Yes, fiscal adjustment is necessary. I might even think that such cuts would be a price worth paying, if they were a proportionate component of a comprehensive plan to address the long-run fiscal situation. But they are nothing remotely like that. Rep. Paul Ryan’s supposedly tough long-term plan to cut spending doesn’t balance the budget until 50 years from now and runs up another $62 trillion in national debt in the meantime, as Matt Miller and others point out. Moreover, as everyone knows, the cuts that the House passed last week are not going to take effect anyway: the Senate and the presidential veto render them all but irrelevant. As usual, it is all about perceptions. I don’t think the perception should be that Democrats stand in the way of fiscal responsibility. So I would prefer to divert the narrative from the unenlightening and sterile debate of small versus big government, to the realities of arithmetic and history.