A Bad Assumption: Republicans Are Acting in Good Faith on Deficits

In the deck (the brief synopsis under the headline) for a front screen story this morning on proposed cuts to Head Start, the New York Times declared: "In taking on a popular, though criticized program, Republicans are seeking to send a strong message about the need for fiscal restraint."

The extent of Republican dishonesty on deficits should have been plain long ago. Republican presidents have been running up very large deficits for thirty years. And in their more candid moments, their advisers and supporters have acknowledged the value of "strategic deficits" -- the utility of deficits as an excuse to cut programs that help the less well-off while preserving and enhancing the prerogatives of the wealthy. That's the only agenda the Republicans have pursued with consistency and dedication for three decades.

Their leading fiscal hawk today, Wisconsin's Paul Ryan, supported all the main drivers of deficits when George W. Bush was in office: the war funding, all the tax cuts and the Medicare prescription drug plan. When not in control of the White House, fiscal rectitude, of course, becomes a matter of great concern to Ryan's party. Ryan's bizarre and perverse roadmap for fiscal reform -- the gold standard for serious thinking about deficits in today's GOP -- would undermine Medicare, raise taxes on most Americans, but reduce them for the wealthiest and would fail to significantly reduce deficits. He insists, with no justification, that our deficit problem is a "spending problem," as if tax cuts don't also add to deficits. Oh wait, the Republican party today has actually accepted that as official doctrine.

Ryan's fellow Wisconsinite, Governor Scott Walker, submitted a bill to his state legislature that he called his "budget repair bill." As you may have heard, this caused a bit of an uproar, since the bill proposed to strip public sector workers of most of their collective bargaining rights. Walker said this was necessary to reduce deficits. His critics replied that the unions had made all the financial concessions he asked for, obviating the need to undermine unions themselves. When an impasse put the original bill on hold, Walker responded by passing a bill without the benefit reductions, but with the stripped down bargaining rights. Union-busting, not deficit reduction, was what Walker cared about.

Paul Krugman's column today notes that, at a recent meeting, Republican congressional aides:

"jeered any and all proposals to use Medicare and Medicaid funds better. Spending money on prevention was no more than a "slush fund." Research on innovation was "an oxymoron." And there was no reason to pay for "so-called effectiveness research."

So we have to rein in "entitlements," but actual serious proposals to save money are derided (unless, as noted above, we want to gut the program itself.).

None of this is new, and none of this is a surprise. Some conservatives, like Rand Paul, have at least acknowledged that you can't make a serious dent in deficit reduction without significant cuts in Pentagon spending. But the party leadership's approach remains the same -- extend tax cuts for the wealthy, bash Democrats for actual cost savings in programs like Medicare ("death panels"), continue to insist on gargantuan Pentagon budgets and try to make up for all that by doing things like cutting two billion dollars from Head Start programs.

The only (mild) surprise is that this position still merits characterizations like the one in the Times today, that the GOP is "serious" about "fiscal restraint." Why the liberal paper of record continues to operate under this assumption remains a mystery.