A Nation of Cowards on Entitlements

by Daniel Foster

President Obama’s 2012 budget, officially released less than an hour ago, cuts the deficit by $1.1 trillion over the next decade. Wow, great news, right? No, because Obama also increases the deficit by $1.7 trillion next year alone and sets spending-to-GDP ratio records like it’s his job.

And speaking of pitiful attempts to use superficially appealing numbers to mask a nightmare fiscal reality, a confederacy of conservatives and tea-infused freshman GOPers last week completed an intra-party coup on spending as swift as it was decisive, getting the House leadership to agree to $100 billion in non-defense discretionary spending cuts in the current fiscal year (the number for Rep. Paul Ryan’s Budget Committee was initially $58 billion). Good on them; $100 billion is a nice chunk of change. But in truth the victory here won was against ambiguity — the figure saves members from having to explain to their constituencies how the Ryan number “technically” cleaved to the ‘Pledge to America’ due to changing baselines etc. etc. etc.

But the size, and most critically the scope, of the Republican cuts make them a drop in the bucket. Consider that total spending in FY2010 was about $3.5 trillion, including an annualized deficit of $1.4 trillion. Of that, total non-defense discretionary spending — the focus of Republican cuts — was $660 billion. In other words, the tea partiers could have turned the House side of the Capitol into Tahrir Square and gotten leadership to zero out non-defense discretionary spending, and it wouldn’t have amounted to half of our current-year deficit. The New York Times has a neat (that is to say, horrifically depressing) visualization of this. Go here and click “hide mandatory spending.”

Hooray!

Now, you’re National Review readers, so I know you know that the name of the game is entitlement reform, and the rules are simple: save the entitlements, save the world. Ignore them, and we’re Greece with better plumbing. But the president’s jokey budget does the latter, and the Republican response has been, if possible, even more disheartening.

Credit where it’s due: Reps. Flake (Ariz.) and Lummis (Wyo.) — both of whom cast dissenting votes in the House Appropriations Committee on a continuing resolution that used Rep. Paul Ryan’s original $58 billion number — endorse his “Roadmap,” the only credible, fiscally conservative congressional plan for saving the entitlements out there. And a spokesperson for Rep. Virginia Foxx (R., N.C.), whom we quoted as a warrior for the bigger, $100 billion number, tells me she’s endorsed the Roadmap in the past and would do it again if it maintains its current form.

But others, including some of the selfsame tea-party heroes who raised hell over what amounts to one percent of the budget, are hemming and hawing on the Roadmap and entitlement reform in general — non-committal at best and cowardly at worst.

Rep. Allen West (R., Fla.) calls Ryan’s plan “a good start” but “not perfect,” and calls for Republicans to be “flexible.” Rep. Kristi Noem (R., N.D.), already the recipient of favorable Sarah Palin comparisons, says she likes portions of the Roadmap but hasn’t “explored too far.” That dog-ate-my-homework theme repeats itself among a number of freshman, and maybe it’s even true, but then are there members like Rep. Steve Chabot (R., Ohio), an RSC guy now entering his eighth term, who says he is “still studying” the Roadmap and is “not ready to announce a position” just yet. Well, maybe by his tenth term.

Then there is the case of Rep. Steve Womack (R., Ark.), who said of the role of GOP freshman in the $100 billion fight, no doubt with a measure of pride, that “we may be rookies in this game. . . [b]ut there is no question that the leadership respects our opinion.” Sure, Womack went on, “there’s an argument” that Ryan’s original $58 billion CR did in fact keep the promise of the Pledge, but it is overridden “by a demand for cuts . . . articulated in such a way that the American people can understand.” But while Congressman Womack is worried about clear diction and word choice when it comes to non-defense discretionary spending, he’s much more content to let vagueness and ambiguity stand when the subject is the long-term drivers of structural budget deficits. Thus a spokesperson tells me, “Congressman Womack believes Rep. Ryan’s ‘Roadmap’ makes sense, and he’s courageous for coming forward with a plan that addresses our fiscal situation.” But, “Having said that, Rep. Womack believes we need to listen to the American people and continue the discussion in determining the best way to move forward.”

Not exactly the speech on St. Crispin’s Day.

The bottom line is this. If the Republicans can do the $100 billion cuts and make meaningful statement on entitlements in their own 2012 budget, I’ll eat my hat. I think doing the discretionary cuts, which every two-bit Democratic alderman is already calling “draconian,” is 90 percent as hard as dealing with entitlements, and 10 percent as substantive. In short, spending political capital on this fight could be a colossal folly that drains the House GOP of the will, and the way, to bring this country back from the fiscal brink. That so many “tea partiers” and “conservatives” are willing to blithely do it suggests they don’t understand the politics, or that they are just as contented with cosmetic victories as the old guard they seek to replace.