Monday, January 07, 2013

Mitch McConnell offers lesson in Republican bullshittery

By Michael J.W. Stickings

Mitch McConnell was on the teevee yesterday laying the groundwork for Republican entrenchment in the next round of budget negotiations:

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) vowed on Sunday that Republicans would force significant spending cuts in exchange for raising the debt ceiling even if President Barack Obama had to be "dragged kicking and screaming."

"What we're saying is that the biggest problem facing the country is our excessive spending," McConnell told NBC's David Gregory. "We've watched the government explode over the last four years. We've dealt with the revenue issue, and now the question is will the president lead? Why should we have to be bringing him to the table?"

Gregory pointed out that trillions of dollars in spending cuts had been part of last year's Budget Control Act and Republicans had refused to accept significant cuts in entitlement programs as a part of a larger deals offered by Democrats going back to debt ceiling negotiations in 2011.

"You can re-litigate the past if you want to," McConnell laughed. "I wish the president would lead us on the discussion rather than putting himself in the position of having to be dragged kicking and screaming to discuss the single biggest issue facing our future. You know, until we adjust the entitlements so that they meet the demographics of our country, we can't ever solve this problem. The time to solve it is now."

Good for David Gregory to stand firm against this nonsense, or at least to point it out for what it is.

Let's go through the bullshit:

First, the U.S. does not have a spending problem, it has a revenue problem, and the budget deficit could be eliminated simply by establishing tax rates at normal historical levels, as we saw during the Clinton years. (As the Times noted last month, "[t]he average federal income tax rate is at its lowest in more than 30 years.") And if there's a spending problem at all, it's with military spending, which is way too high. In fact, under Obama federal government spending is rising at the lowest rate since the '50s, while discretionary spending as a percentage of GDP is the lowest it's been since the same decade. There's no exploding safety net either.

Second, even if you think that spending is a problem, it's ridiculous to say that it's America's "biggest problem." I'd put climate change #1, but even if you're a denier, which most Republicans are, what about non-state terrorism directed at U.S. interests? Or the demise of domestic manufacturing, along with the rise of China?

Third, the government hasn't exploded under Obama. The Affordable Care Act, the president's major achievement, is a market-based effort to rein in exploding health-care costs. Yes, it extends coverage to millions and millions of the uninsured, but it does not establish government-run health care. And to the extent that spending has increased, as Jon Chait has written, "virtually the entire phenomenon is an automatic response to the recession rather than any policy change... The 'Obama spending binge' was almost entirely mythical." It's all just Republican propaganda, and Gregory was right to note that the president has proposed, and agreed to, significant spending cuts. Indeed, as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities points out

Reductions in funding for discretionary (i.e., non-entitlement) programs enacted last year, primarily in the Budget Control Act, have produced $1.5 trillion in savings in discretionary spending for fiscal years 2013 through 2022.  This part of the budget includes defense, international programs, and an array of domestic programs ranging from education to law enforcement, food safety, and environmental protection.

Fourth, Republicans have been trying desperately to get the president to propose cuts. Why? Because they can't. As Chait has written:

There really isn't money to be cut everywhere. The United States spends way less money on social services than do other advanced countries, and even that low figure is inflated by our sky-high health-care prices. The retirement benefits to programs like Social Security are quite meager. Public infrastructure is grossly underfunded... The absence of a Republican spending proposal is not just a negotiating tactic but a howling void where a specific grasp of the role of government ought to be. And negotiating around that void is extremely hard to do. The spending cuts aren’t there because they can't be found.

Republicans have already "successfully squeezed funding levels for domestic programs" to the point where there just aren't significant savings to be had. Furthermore, they know that most spending cuts are deeply unpopular (even if there is opposition to government spending in the abstract, fueled largely by Republican propaganda and perpetuated by the media), which is why they do it very quietly, as with discretionary spending programs that impact, say, the poor, or refuse to provide the details, as was the case with Romney and Ryan last year.

So they (or at least the smart ones, like McConnell) know they can't just come out with proposals to slash Social Security and Medicare, for example, or to cut funding for food safety and education. They need Democrats to do the dirty work for them. Unfortunately, Democrats have frequently obliged, and the president himself has shown a willingness time and time again to give Republicans cover.

Fifth, Obama has been a willing compromiser, often to the frustration and opposition of progressives, throughout his first term, including with respect to the budget. He has given Republicans cover, and he has agreed time and time again to deals that are extremely favorable to Republicans. Even in the fiscal cliff deal reached last week, despite the fact that he seemed to have all the leverage he agreed to a deal that will raise significantly less revenue than he had previously been demanding, including caving in on the threshold under which the Bush tax cuts were made permanent -- set at $400/450K, much higher than the $250K he supposedly wanted. 

If it's kicking and screaming you want, you need look no further than the House Republican caucus, not to mention McConnell's own hyper-partisan obstructionism.

We're going to hear a lot more of this going forward: We've done revenue, now it's time for spending cuts, because spending is out of control, and President Obama should name the cuts.

It's complete bullshit on all fronts.

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