The budget debate in Washington has become depressingly familiar:
On one side, we’ve got people insisting that federal spending has to be slashed because the deficit has become such a terrible load on the economy, and we have to start living within our means immediately.
Then we’ve got people who take the exact opposite course, arguing that slashing federal spending would be foolish because it would hurt the economy and cost jobs at a time when jobs are hard to come by.
“The whole point here is to try to get some economic growth, job creation, to get out of this recession,” one senator said this week in opposing proposed budget cuts. “Why would we risk going backward with policy that even CBO says would be the wrong prescription right now?”
In this case, however, the two conflicting messages are coming from the same people. For example, the senator quoted above — the one opposing spending cuts because of the impact on jobs — happens to be Sen. Jon Kyl, Republican of Arizona, one of the most conservative members of the Senate.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: How could Republicans be arguing against budget cuts and in favor of higher spending? Have you wakened this morning in BizarroLand? (The answer to that second question is yes, but you do every morning. It’s the world in which we all live nowadays. But I digress.)
Here’s the explanation: The cuts in question — the cuts that have Kyl and other Republicans so concerned because of the impact on the economy — are proposed to take place in defense spending. And in case you didn’t know it, Republicans use a rather unique five-point rulebook to guide their approach to the deficit, the budget and government spending.
I will now endeavor to explain those five rules:
A.) Defense dollars do not add to the deficit. If you want to know how Republicans can don their Tea Party costumes, predict that too much spending is going to doom this country, and then turn around and insist on much-higher defense spending with multi-billion-dollar projects that the Pentagon doesn’t even want, this is your answer:
Defense dollars don’t count.
Sure, we already spend more money on defense — adjusted for inflation — than we did even at the height of the Cold War, when we were nose to nose with the Soviet Union. But there’s no need to consider cutting or even slowing the increase in that spending, because defense dollars don’t count.
B.) Government-funded jobs are never real jobs and government spending, such as the stimulus bill, never helps and always hurts the economy. Well, “never” in the sense that never doesn’t include defense. Teachers, police officers, construction workers — not real jobs. Jobs building the F-22 and F-35 — those are real jobs that Washington would be heartless to stop funding.
C.) The deficit is the single biggest problem facing our country, but cutting taxes never adds to that deficit. As our friend Sen. Kyl once explained, “You should never have to offset cost of a deliberate decision to reduce tax rates on Americans.”
You see, in the non-Republican world the ledger has two sides: costs and revenue. But a Republican ledger contains only the cost side; revenue is not to be acknowledged. (And as we’ve seen already in Rule A, the cost side does not include defense.)
As an example, the business tax cut passed by the House just last month would increase the deficit by some $46 billion in a single year (most of the money would go to Americans already earning more than $250,000 a year). But that lost revenue doesn’t really count against the deficit because, well, Rule C. It’s like magic, don’t you see?
D.) Republicans want to compromise on the budget and reach a bipartisan deal. However, by “compromise” they mean that the Republicans get everything they want and give up nothing. As Indiana’s Richard Mourdock so helpfully points out, “bipartisanship ought to consist of Democrats coming to the Republican point of view.” They are perfectly willing to compromise as long as this compromise doesn’t include more revenue (Rule C) and it doesn’t include defense cuts (Rule A).
E.) There’s no such thing as a deal anyway, if by “deal” you mean an agreement that both sides agree to honor. A “deal” means that the Democrats carry out their end of the bargain, while the Republicans refuse.
For example, after throwing an infantile fit over the debt-ceiling limit last August that ended in a credit downgrade for the United States, the Republicans agreed to a “deal”. A bipartisan supercommittee was established to negotiate budget cuts, with both sides agreeing that if the supercommittee failed, the cuts would come half from government programs favored by Democrats, and half from defense programs favored by Republicans. Fair, right?
The “bipartisan” supercommittee failed, largely because of Rule D, which meant the automatic cuts will take effect. But Republicans immediately reneged. Last month, the GOP House passed a bill enacting all the automatic cuts to Democratic programs that had been agreed upon, but none of the cuts to defense. (See Rule A.) And to make up for the cuts that didn’t happen to defense, the Republicans made even deeper cuts to social programs.
Once armed with these five shorthand rules, it becomes much easier to understand Republican rhetoric on spending, the deficit and taxes. For example, how can Mitt Romney claim that balancing the budget is “a moral imperative” when he proposes to significantly increase defense spending and also cut taxes on corporations and the wealthy?
See Rules A and C.
I hope that this discussion has clarified the situation for you, and that armed with this easy, five-step guide to Republican financial policy, the world is now slightly more comprehensible.
– Jay Bookman