Republican House Speaker John Boehner and GOP Presidential nominee Mitt Romney have, in the course of the past week, pushed starkly different approaches to fiscal policy and economic recovery, a window into a broader rift within the GOP between the Tea Party and less absolutist conservatives.
Boehner, carrying the Tea Party line on spending, recently said that he would insist that the deficit be cut by a dollar for every dollar increase in the debt limit, or else he would refuse to raise it, helping drive the country toward default.
"When the time comes, I will again insist on my simple principle of cuts and reforms greater than the debt limit increase," Boehner said.
"Dealing with our deficit and our debt would help create more economic growth in the United States," Boehner told George Stephanopolous Sunday on ABC's "This Week." "The issue is the debt."
Romney, however, said that pushing drastic spending cuts during shaky economic times is a prescription for "recession or depression."
Asked by Time's Mark Halperin Wednesday why he wouldn't push major cuts in his first year, Romney responded with reasoning that would be largely uncontroversial if not for the past two years' mainstreaming of an economic philosophy that insists government spending actually costs jobs, rather than creates job.
"Well because, if you take a trillion dollars for instance, out of the first year of the federal budget, that would shrink GDP over 5 percent. That is by definition throwing us into recession or depression. So I'm not going to do that, of course," Romney said in an answer picked up by former bank regulator William Black, a HuffPost blogger.
Boehner, by contrast, said cutting spending will spur the economy by giving "certainty" to the business community. "It would lift this cloud of uncertainty that's causing employers to wonder what's next. So dealing with our debt and our deficit are critically important," he said.
Any spending cuts, Romney said, should come down the road, after the economy has improved.
"I don't want to have us go into a recession in order to balance the budget," he said. "I'd like to have us have high rates of growth at the same time we bring down federal spending, on, if you will, a ramp that’s affordable, but that does not cause us to enter into a economic decline."
Romney's reasoning accepts the basic premise that government spending adds to GDP and leads to economic growth, at least during times when consumer spending and private-sector demand is down.
The economic assertion is supported by the post-recession job creation numbers. Under President Obama, government spending has grown at its slowest rate since the Eisenhower Administration, according to Politifact. Predictably, that has led to a slower recovery and -- ironically for a president who called for belt-tightening as a political response to the Tea Party -- political trouble for his reelection.
In fact, adjusting for inflation, Obama has actually cut spending by 0.1 percent, according to a Politifact analysis.
While rival schools of economic thought have never agreed on each other's fundamental principles, over the past several decades, the notion that more government spending helps during a recession had gained broad acceptance. But it has been rejected by Tea Party members of Congress and conservative interest groups like the Club for Growth, who have bemoaned Obama's stimulus package and other efforts to boost the economy as job-killing government spending. Club for Growth declined to comment for this article.
The rhetorical thrust of a sharp distinction between the Tea Party's demand for big cuts and Obama's supposed propensity to spend has been a central tenet of the GOP's political messaging over the past two years. And Romney has run afoul of budget-cut purists before, recently over comments he made during a campaign stop in Michigan.
"If you just cut, if all you're thinking about doing is cutting spending, as you cut spending you'll slow down the economy," Romney said, according to MSNBC.
That comment prompted this response from Club for Growth lobbyist Andy Roth: "It's hogwash. It confirms yet again that Romney is not a limited government conservative."
But with Romney now the Republican Party's presumptive nominee for president, anti-government-spending groups are largely holding their fire. Dan Mitchell, senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute, told HuffPost that while many at his organization would prefer a "slash and burn" approach to federal spending, they could still accept the "glide path" proposed by Romney -- even if it does rely on "Keynesian" reasoning.
"Big spending cuts would be great," Mitchell said. "So Romney's rhetoric is worrisome. But if he is willing to restrain the growth of spending, so that it grows slower than the private sector, that would be a modest step in the right direction."
House Republicans -- as indicated by rhetoric like Boehner's -- seem less eager to compromise.
UPDATE: A Boehner spokesman said Friday that the speaker also recognizes the value of trimming over the longterm, noting that his recent speech included this passage:
Last fall, when I addressed the Economic Club of Washington, I said that making relatively small changes now can lead to huge dividends down the road in terms of debt reduction. As we approach the issue of the debt limit again, we need to continue to bear this in mind.
As you know, we could eliminate all of the unfunded liabilities in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid tomorrow, and the effect within the Congressional Budget Office 10-year window could be minimal.
That’s because changes to these programs take time and are phased-in slowly.
For example, when Congress last increased the retirement age for Social Security, the increase – a mere two years – was scheduled to fully take effect 40 years after the law was enacted.
Another example: take the House Budget Resolution and its assumptions for Medicare reform. Those would not even begin until after 2022.
Smart and modest changes today mean huge dividends down the line.