LAST WEEK, while the Supreme Court’s hearings on the health care law were eclipsing all else in Washington, House Republicans passed a budget devised by Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the voluble deficit hawk who chairs the Budget Committee and serves as his party’s point man on cutting taxes and spending. On Tuesday, in a speech before a group of newspaper editors, President Obama attacked that budget as “thinly veiled social Darwinism’’ for cutting so deeply into social programs for the poor and middle class. The speech previewed his reelection message: Republican cuts are far too severe and threaten the well-being of ordinary Americans in order to finance tax cuts for the rich.
That was the overwhelming thrust of the next day’s media coverage: Ryan the deficit-slayer versus Obama the protector of government benefits. But Ryan’s budget, while indeed proposing steep cuts, also seeks to undo other cuts already signed into law, and thereby serves to illustrate why, for all its endless talk, Congress has such a hard time actually cutting spending.
Last summer, with Republicans threatening to force the United States to default on its debt unless spending was brought down, the two parties struck a last-minute deal to avoid catastrophe. The Budget Control Act, supported by Republicans and Democrats, and signed by Obama, cut $900 billion over a decade, and guaranteed that an additional $1.2 trillion in savings would be achieved in one of two ways. The preferable way was for a bipartisan “supercommittee’’ to come up with a plan to cut spending and raise revenue. The other way - designed to be so unpleasant for both sides that it would compel an agreement - was through a “sequester’’ that would automatically cut $500 billion from the discretionary and entitlement spending that Democrats cherish and another $500 billion from military spending, a top Republican priority (interest savings would provide the remaining $200 billion).
The supercommittee flopped. But even the fallback option was a coup for Republicans, because it consisted solely of spending cuts and included none of the tax increases with which Democrats had sought to balance them. And yet even before the supercommittee had formally conceded failure, Republicans were pushing to renege on the very same military cuts they had just voted for in the Budget Control Act - cuts that were legally binding and reduced projected future deficits, although they don’t formally take effect until next Jan. 1. This change of heart, Republicans explained, was driven by a concern that reducing defense spending by $500 billion, or about 9 percent, would endanger national security (a concern curiously absent when they originally cast their votes).
At least initially, some Republicans acknowledged this about-face and were willing to confront the consequences. The trade-off necessary to preserve the military budget without adding to the deficit was to accept higher taxes. “I have never voted for a tax increase,’’ House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon of California said last September. But, he added, were that the only way to spare the military, “I would go to strengthen defense.’’
Today, that willingness to confront hard choices has vanished. The Republican budget restores most of the defense cuts and imposes even greater demands on the entitlement programs Democrats seek to protect.
It includes no tax increases. And without any acknowledgement of their role in bringing them about, Republicans have begun furiously criticizing what Ryan now calls “devastating cuts to our national security,’’ adding that his party is “continuing their efforts to re-prioritize the savings called for under the Budget Control Act.’’ Buck McKeon is fully on board.
The problem with all this should be obvious, but it hasn’t gotten much attention. The lone positive to emerge from last summer’s chaotic showdown was the bipartisan agreement to actually cut spending - the only significant deficit reduction achieved in the last 15 years. Given the enormous difficulty of getting Congress to do anything, that was no mean feat.
Now Republicans are working to wriggle out of it, even while they thunder on about the deficit. This is just the sort of behavior that feeds the deepening cynicism about government and the doubts about our ability to thrive and compete. How can anyone take seriously politicians’ urgent calls for spending cuts while they’re busy trying to undo the ones they’ve already made?
Joshua Green is a national correspondent for Bloomberg Businessweek. Follow him on Twitter@JoshuaGreen.