Inappropriations: The House’s Ideological Budget

Apr 25, 2011 No Comments

By Tom Hughes

As hectic as it may be, the battle over the federal budget gives us a window into the minds of our country’s key political players. A budget expresses our values, quite literally; it shows the amount we value everything the government does in plain dollar terms. So now that the madness is over and President Obama and the GOP-controlled House of Representatives have reached a budget agreement for the 2011 fiscal year, I want to take this opportunity to delve into the collective psyche of the newly empowered House Republicans by revisiting some of the provisions of their proposed budget. More often than not, the key to understanding the House’s bizarre opening gambit is politics, not good policy.

If you believed the right-wing rhetoric during the 2010 midterm elections, the new GOP House majority surfed into Washington on a wave of popular dissatisfaction with big government spending and the mounting debt. Though it seems more likely that the public felt dissatisfied with the slow pace of economic recovery (which impacts them more directly and immediately), the Republican victors claimed a mandate for drastically cutting spending to reduce the deficit. Instead, once in office, they pursued an ideological agenda with very little to do with balancing the budget, thus promising to further obstruct America’s faltering economic recovery.

Consider one of the GOP’s most shamelessly partisan legislative moves: the passing of the Pence Amendment, which would have cut federal funding for Planned Parenthood. An obvious attempt to push forward a pro-life viewpoint, it would have reduced access to many of Planned Parent’s services, including legal abortions. Needless to say, this will not stimulate any economic growth. It also bears remembering that the vast majority of services provided by Planned Parenthood are basic health services, like screening for ovarian or cervical cancer and sexually transmitted diseases, as well as education. Luckily, House Republicans faced a strong public backlash for passing this amendment and it did not make the final budget.

Another relatively minor spending cut that received a disproportionate amount of attention for its obvious political motivation has been the attempt to defund National Public Radio. Removing federal funding for NPR would put an imperceptible dent in the national deficit while likely reducing the ability of many smaller and more rural radio stations to provide its content to listeners. So where’s the logic? The belief that NPR is the medium of choice for elitist urban liberals earned it a spot on the House’s chopping block. Whether this reputation is true or not does not matter to the GOP, they picked this battle to score political points, not constructive policy victories.

The President and the House also fought over funding for education. While President Obama offered a general freeze on non-security related discretional spending, he proposed increasing spending for the Department of Education by 11 percent. This money would go towards both primary and secondary education, including an expansion of Pell Grant eligibility to more low-income families paying college tuition. Republicans wanted to cut both eligibility and the maximum grant an individual can receive. If they truly cared about America’s long-term competitiveness, they might not want to make it more difficult for children from low-income families to attend college. But, anticipating a short-term political payoff from cutting government spending, they opted to reduce America’s investment in its future.

While House Republicans decided to make these politically charged cuts in discretionary spending, they have been far less willing to consider any realistic policy solutions that significantly lower the deficit in the long-term. For example, Defense Secretary Robert Gates proposed substantial but responsible cuts in military spending, which makes up about a fifth of the federal budget, or, to put that in perspective, about as much as all other discretionary spending put together. Yet, aside from a few new Tea Party freshmen, Republicans refuse any cuts in military spending, even on notoriously expensive and useless programs. Apparently it is not possible to be both a deficit hawk and a war hawk.

And then the Big Kahuna: entitlement spending. Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid spending make up the largest, fastest growing part of the federal budget, therefore responsible budgeting cannot proceed without reforming these necessary, but expensive programs. Admittedly, neither party agrees even among its own members on the best way to fix entitlements. But if Rep. Paul Ryan, the Republican chair of the House Budget Committee, had his way, parts of Social Security would be privatized and a voucher system would replace Medicare and Medicaid. This proposal did not have the support of all House Republicans, nor most economists, but it is consistent with conservative orthodoxy.

If House Republicans really want to get serious about reducing deficit spending, however, they need to show some flexibility on the other side of the budget equation: revenues. While “thou shalt not raise taxes” appears to be a commandment of the conservative movement, spending cuts alone will not reduce the debt. The Bush Tax Cuts, which received a two-year extension last December as part of a deal between Congressional Republicans the Obama Administration, disproportionately favor the wealthiest Americans and are economically unsustainable. Similarly, reductions in capital gains, estate, and corporate income taxes may earn House Republicans more conservative credibility, but they truly hurt the American middle class.

I don’t think anyone in Washington feels happy with this year’s last-minute compromise budget. While I give all parties involved credibility for demonstrating the ability to work together, the debate hit its biggest roadblocks on social issues, especially abortion, in the last few nail-biting hours before the possible shutdown. If the newly sworn-in Republicans want to make a good-faith effort towards governing in bipartisan Washington, they need to put aside pointlessly partisan problems and show that they can negotiate on tough issues like defense, entitlements, and taxes. As we move forward into a potentially messier debate over the 2012 budget, Republicans cannot afford to serve the interests of their far-right base and alienate their Democratic colleagues by passing ego-boosting social legislation with no budgetary purpose. And we won’t let them.

Spring 2011, Final

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