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The Republicans' Deficit Attention Disorder

March 31, 2009

"Reagan," Dick Cheney once famously declared, "proved that deficits don't matter." Not, that is, when a Republican is sitting in the Oval Office, as the tripling of the U.S. national debt under Ronald Reagan and doubling under George W. Bush confirmed. Now with the mystery budget unveiled to great fanfare - and even greater laughter - by House Republicans last week, the on-again/off-again deficit hawks of the GOP are at it again. Having blasted Barack Obama's supposed "banana republic" budget deficit, Congressional Republicans' promise of warmed-over tax cuts for the wealthy will only make it worse.
That grudging admission came from Wisconsin Republican Rep. Paul Ryan on Monday. Asked by Bloomberg's Al Hunt about the projected size of the deficit under the Republicans' 19-page budget pamphlet, Ryan acknowledged only, "A lot."

RYAN: A lot. Let's put it that way.
HUNT: Pardon me?
RYAN: Now I can't give you the specific numbers because we're still waiting for some numbers back from CBO.

As it turns out, Ryan's discomfort came just one day after he suggested to C-SPAN that the House GOP's proposed tax cuts would magically reduce the deficit. Confronted with the truism that "it seems like a tax cut is only going to add to that deficit," Ryan responded:

"Look, we have a massive deficit right now, you can't balance the budget tomorrow because it's out of control, but we need to show the economy and the American people that we have a plan and a glide path to get our fiscal house in order and to grow our economy by helping entrepreneurs and small business people, not by raising their taxes, but by lowering their taxes."

Were it not for his scathing criticism of President Obama's supposed "switch over to a Europeanized type of economy" and budget proposal which "exploits the economic crisis," Rep. Ryan could be forgiven his confusion. After, like House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, Ryan protested the premature release of the over-hyped "blueprint" by Mike Pence (R-IN) and Minority Leader John Boeher (R-OH). Even as Ryan was said to be hard at work at crafting a "multi-hundred page" GOP alternative budget bill due this week, Boehner Thursday taunted Obama, "here it is, Mr. President."
That "it", as it turned out, was a boomerang. Reporters were quick to laugh off Boehner's gambit. While Obama OMB director Peter Orszag merely noted, "Republicans have gone from the party of 'no' to the party of 'no detail'", a stunned Contessa Brewer exclaimed, "give me some substance!" The GOP's content-free outline didn't meet even George W. Bush's comic standard, "It's clearly a budget. It's got a lot of numbers in it."
But what numbers it did have constitute a recipe for budgetary disaster. The House Republicans' plan to slash the income tax rate to 25% for all earners over $100,000 while simultaneously ending capital gains taxes would produce a massive windfall for wealthy Americans even as it produced rivers of red ink. (The "lower" capital gains rate is not specified in the GOP plan; Ryan proposed its elimination altogether.) An analysis by Citizens for Tax Justice concluded the GOP scheme "would cost over $300 billion more than the Obama income tax cuts in 2011 alone." While the Center for American Progress concluded the Boehner-Ryan giveaway would hand an annual tax bonanza of $1.5 million to the average CEO, CTJ found that:

Over a fourth of taxpayers, mostly low-income families, would pay more in taxes under the House GOP plan than they would under the President's plan.

For his part, former Republican presidential candidate John McCain wandered into the morass on Sunday, only to get stuck as well. On Sunday, McCain insisted to David Gregory on Meet the Press that Senate Republicans were "working very hard" on a detailed budget alternative. But on Monday, a spokesman for Senator Minority Mitch McConnell swatted down that idea. As ABC News noted:

"The Senate GOP's plan remains the same: Republicans are planning to offer individual amendments to the Democratic budget but not a detailed, comprehensive budget of their own."

As his sad experience on the 2008 campaign trail revealed, John McCain is illustrative of the uniquely Republican disability when it comes to the budget deficit. McCain famously offered ping-ponging promises to balance the budget at the end of his first term, his second terms or not at all during the course of 2008. His chief economic adviser Douglas Holtz-Eakin was similarly all over the map, before proclaiming in frustration last April:

"I would like the next president not to talk about deficit reduction."

Holtz-Eakin's exasperation with deficit projections was understandable if dishonest. As the number-crunchers at the Center for American Progress showed, John McCain's proposed massively regressive tax cutting binge would have blown a $2 trillion hole in the budget within a decade, all while delivering 58% of its benefits to the wealthiest 1% of Americans.
And so it goes. On Wednesday morning, MSNBC reports, "House and Senate Republicans will join in a grand show of budget unity." That means the unveiling of the detailed Ryan budget will come on April Fool's Day. Which is altogether fitting. Because whenever Republicans lecture about the deficit and fiscal discipline, it's a joke.

One comment on “The Republicans' Deficit Attention Disorder”

  1. I've been looking all over the blogosphere for right-wing commentary about the Republican budget. Talk about crickets.
    Nothing from Hot Air, Red State, NRO. Nothing.


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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