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The Budget Debate That Wasn’t
A sea of red ink is changing the political calculus.


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Rich Lowry

If you propose stiff budget cuts and don’t get called “heartless,” does it really count?

Republicans passed an unheard-of $61 billion in budget cuts a few weeks ago, and not only have lived to tell the tale, but have emerged without a scratch. They piled all of them on one slice of the budget (nonsecurity discretionary spending) over a compressed period (half of the remaining fiscal year), magnifying their impact and opening themselves to avenues of attack so obvious that the average College Democrat could write the campaign plan.

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The usual liberal outfits raised the usual alarms. “House Bill Means Fewer Children in Head Start, Less Help for Students to Attend College, Less Job Training, and Less Funding for Clean Water” warned the headline of a report of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. The cut in nonsecurity domestic spending for the remainder of fiscal year 2011, it noted in astonishment, was nearly 25 percent. For some specific categories of spending it reached higher: minus 38.5 percent for agriculture, rural development, and the Food and Drug Administration, and minus 36.5 percent for transportation and the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

There’s a word for such cuts: “impossible.” There’s a word for people who would undertake such cuts: “suicidal.” And yet White House and Senate Democrats have been backpedaling for weeks, accepting a higher and higher number for cuts in the so-called continuing resolution for funding for the rest of this fiscal year.

The latest in the highly fluid negotiations was that the Democrats could accept another $23 billion in cuts, on top of the $10 billion that has already been passed in stopgap measures. That number would be higher than the original cuts proposed by House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan, before the tea-party members within the Republican caucus doubled them. In other words, Vice President Joe Biden — Mr. Stimulus and the White House’s negotiator — is ending up where Ryan — the budget hawk extraordinaire — started out.

In the battle between stimulus and austerity, austerity is winning in a rout. We know it’s not 1932 again, when the public practically gave Democrats carte blanche for a history-making bout of liberal activism. It may not even be 1994 again, when Democrats stymied fervently anti-deficit Republicans with cookie-cutter attacks on their budget proposals.

Perhaps Democrats and liberal interests have been too distracted by other fights like the union brawl in Wisconsin to stoke public outrage over the supposed depredations of the GOP cuts. Perhaps they are keeping their powder dry for an all-out assault on Republicans should a deadlock and government shutdown occur over the remaining gap between the two sides on a final number and other policy disagreements.

Or it may be that a larger shift is afoot, as the size of the deficit makes any cuts — even substantial ones by the old rules, even ones that are notionally unpopular in polling — appear piddling and worth it against the backdrop of red ink.

Certainly strange portents abound in the land. In Albany, N.Y., a watchword for blue-state prodigality and dysfunction, a liberal Democratic governor named (Andrew) Cuomo has basically closed a $10 billion budget shortfall without raising taxes. A bipartisan group of 64 senators has written Pres. Barack Obama a letter urging him to “engage in a broader discussion about a comprehensive deficit reduction package.” Ten ex-chairmen of the Council of Economic Advisers have urged him to take the far-reaching Bowles-Simpson commission as a starting point for tackling a deficit that “is a severe threat that calls for serious and prompt attention.” Obsessing about the debt is not just for the Tea Party anymore.

Paul Ryan is about to test this theory with a truly transformational budget for 2012 that reportedly will block-grant Medicaid and remake Medicare for future retirees. Nearly everything based on past experience and polling data says his budget will be a political lightning rod and liability — just as it did with the first round of Republican spending cuts.

— Rich Lowry is editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail, [email protected]. © 2011 by King Features Syndicate.



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