Friday, March 11, 2011

A budget stalemate and the hubris of freshman Tea Partiers

It may have been obvious during the 2010 midterm campaign that the Tea Partiers were delusional, but nobody quite grasped the depth of their derangement until they rewrote a budget proposal last month that nearly doubled the amount of spending cuts originally sought by Republicans in the House, then spent the next two weeks calling on Democrats – without a hint of irony – to get serious about the nation's fiscal disorder. 

After an entire campaign dedicated to making promises about deflating the ballooning size of government, reining in Washington's excessive spending habits, and reducing the dangerously high annual deficit, the House Tea Party members put their money where their mouth was, so to speak. Except they didn't. 

While The Washington Post reported that the proposed $61 billion in spending cuts, if enacted into law, would represent "the largest rescission of federal funds since the conclusion of World War II," the proposal's effect on the deficit is akin to trying to drain the Atlantic by sticking a Slurpee straw into the Potomac. 

From a recent USA Today editorial: 

The $61 billion in spending cuts being sought by House Republicans, and being fiercely resisted by Democrats, represent just 3.7% of this year's deficit and 1.6% of total federal spending. That's not to say there shouldn't be cuts. You have to start somewhere to change attitudes. But any genuine effort to deal with the nation's exploding debt involves tackling benefit programs, reining in defense and security spending, and raising more tax revenue. 

Not only does the proposal fail the long-term litmus test by ignoring Social Security, Medicare, and defense funding – the cash-cow trifecta of federal outlays it also fails to deliver even a short-term fix.

Run down the line of programs slated for defunding or underfunding and the same scenario emerges: these cuts, other than earning the nod from a handful of anti-ObamaCare, anti-government constituents, achieve almost nothing. (Eliminating funding for both Planned Parenthood and public broadcasting amounts to $790 million in savings, which, when translated into a percentage of the $3.7 trillion federal budget, represents a savings of two millionths of one percent.)

Beyond the dwarfish reach of the proposal, the $61 billion in cuts also happens to be an impossible request in a legislative branch that is only half-controlled by Republicans. 

No Democrat could survive the liberal revolt if they joined Republicans and voted to eliminate funding for health-care reform, Planned Parenthood, and public broadcasting; if they agreed to gut funding for the Environmental Protection Agency and eliminate the agency's role as an emissions regulator; or if they capitulated to Tea Party demands and ignored addressing the growing costs of entitlements and defense, which, combined, account for more than 60 percent of federal spending.

This is where the insanity is best showcased. The Democratic Party's vehement opposition to the bill was not classified or privileged information. Majority Leader Harry Reid came right out and called the bill "draconian" – essentially declaring it dead-on-arrival in the Senate after passing in the House along party lines. President Obama didn't even wait for House Republicans to approve the measure before threatening to veto the bill. To assume that the proposal had any chance of becoming law is to acknowledge that the Tea Party is indeed crazy.

But that isn't how politics works. Normally, they'd have used the proposed $61 billion in budget cuts as a benchmark. After a few days of railing Democrats in front of the cameras as tax-and-spend liberals, socialists, and clueless bleeding hearts, the Republican leadership would take over and start negotiating. That's the usual procedure. Announce your ideology-driven initiative, pressure the other party into joining the debate, then actually have a debate. After sanding off the sharp edges and eliminating the parts that both parties know will doom the bill to failure, lawmakers can then work out the finer details, the phrasing, the timeline for implementation, and then, eventually, pass a revised, responsible, and balanced piece of bipartisan legislation. 

Neither side will be fully satisfied, but the problem is addressed. That's the nature of the legislative beast. It's the beauty of democracy. And yes, it's a dirty business. Unless you actually are the messiah, as some apparently hoped of the president during his campaign three years ago, you don't escape the Capitol Hill negotiation mill without a few scars. President Obama learned this lesson with both health-care reform and tax cuts. Unlike Obama's case, however, the learning curve for the Tea Party will be sharp, painful, and fruitless. 

Perhaps the freshman lawmakers, lacking any hands-on experience with the process, thought it would turn out differently, that their bill would somehow survive the Senate, and that Obama might... I don't know, maybe faceplant from a dopamine overdose after laughing himself to death. If the bill were positioned on his desk at just the right angle, and if the pen in his ear made a mark on the signature line of the bill that the Supreme Court ruled was close enough to the left-handed president's chicken-scratch handwriting that it constituted a deliberate signature, then maybe it would be enacted into law. There's no other possible explanation for the Tea Party's ignorance in thinking that their proposals, unchanged, would go anywhere outside of the GOP-dominated House. 

The most appalling part of this Twilight Zone episode is that Republicans had two and a half weeks to work with Democrats on revising the most offensive portions of the bill, and instead of actually negotiating – the usual give-and-take of any bargaining process – Republicans used that time to bicker, accuse Democrats of obstruction, point fingers at the president for not solving everyone's problems, and generally abandon their roles as nationally elected leaders.

When the bill failed in the Senate, this was one response to the Democratic Party's refusal to accept the budget cuts: 

Paying lip service to the threat caused by the deficit is not a substitute for responsible leadership.

Those words came not from the fiery gut of a radical freshman Tea Partier. They came from the 25-year veteran lawmaker and current minority leader of the Senate, Mitch McConnell. 

Of course, Democrats were no better. As a means of "compromise," they proposed cutting $6.5 billion, a figure that was so shallow Republicans didn't even bother wasting their breath to scoff at it. But one can't really fault Democrats for not initiating a deal. Cutting social programs wasn't their idea, for one. For two, assuming the stereotypes of the two parties are correct, Democrats wouldn't have proposed any sort of compromise whatsoever. They'd have countered the GOP's budget cut proposal with tax hikes. 

So, here we are nearly halfway through the fiscal year, staring once again down the barrel of a government shutdown, and despite having two months to figure out what is and isn't possible when it comes to reducing spending, our leaders are proving incapable of even beginning a real debate about effective but economically responsible budget cuts. 

We're back at square one, as they say, and it seems our national leaders are playing hopscotch in the quicksand.

(Cross-posted at Muddy Politics.) 

Credits: Image 1, Image 2

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