On the Budget Deal, a Response to Andrew Stiles

by Andrew C. McCarthy

 In his Whoopee GOP! response to my post on the budget deal, I’m surprised Andrew Stiles forgot to include Speaker John Boehner’s talking point about how “we only hold one-half of one-third of the government.” That’s the one to which the rest of us are supposed to nod solemnly and have the good grace not to mention that, under that quaint document known as the Constitution, all spending by the federal government — every last cent of it — originates in the House of Representatives. A government that is trillions of dollars in the hole can only add another trillion-and-a-half (or more) to the debt if the House proposes it or otherwise allows it to happen.

On the matter of GOP talking points, let’s consider another one that the speaker prefers to mouth than to think through: When Democrats controlled the House, as well as the two other political components of government — the Senate and the presidency — that are responsible for appropriating and spending public money, they failed to enact a budget for the current fiscal year. Well, yes, that was a political calculation — what Andrew might call a “fail-proof strategy” given the public mood (desirous of dramatic spending cuts) and the Democratic appetite (calling for ever increasing spending). But, to cite a matter of both reality and constitutional law that Republicans now prefer not to mention, their talking point means that There is no budget for 2011. The GOP is not in the position of tweaking something that is already operable. When there is no budget, the party that controls the House gets to start from scratch.

It is a lunatic Washington convention, and thus it is conventional wisdom, that starting from scratch somehow means starting from last year’s baseline funding for all federal programs and, from that premise, deciding what to increase, what to cut, or what to leave in cruise control. But as a matter of fact and law, starting from scratch means starting from zero. It means that the budget deal that has just been announced — the deal that will run a $1.5 trillion dollar deficit added to over $14 trillion in debt (a lowball figure that does not account for tens of trillions more in unfunded liabilities) is not just the Obama budget. It is the Republican-controlled House’s proposed budget that the Democrat-controlled Senate will approve and President Obama will declare victory in signing.

From the start, the Boehner GOP leadership has acted as if the lack of a budget for this year is a terrible burden because, in their telling, they are required to make the adult choices about where to slice President Obama’s last budget. That’s absurd, even if establishment GOP chatterers buy into the narrative. News flash: The House can stop whatever spending it chooses to stop. The constitutional power of the purse is the power to say no. Saying no can entail shutting down the government if the other political actors in the process are unwilling to go along with the spending proposed by the House and the House is serious enough to stick to its guns.

In the ongoing drama, we have learned that Republicans are not willing to shut the government down because there is political risk – or, worse, that they are not willing to shut the joint down because, despite having a strong case about insolvency to make to a public increasingly alarmed about insolvency, they are too timid or inept to make it. In the common parlance, that is called “blinking.” That Andrew may be “thoroughly unconvinced” that Republicans have “somehow” blinked does not change that blink is exactly what they have done. That is not a “notion,” Andrew. It is a fact, and it can’t be spun away. And speaking of spin, let’s get to some of the more fatuous examples one is apt to read anyplace.

Employing some shrewd analysis, Andrew infers — from my not exactly subtle argument that the Republicans could have won a better deal — that I have made an “assumption” that “Republicans could have won a better deal, could have gotten more of what they wanted, refusing to move an inch off their original $61 billion and allowing the government shut down.” Well, yes, Andrew, you got me on that one. And, remarkable as it may seem, that is the point of a shutdown — of the House using its constitutional power to say “no” to a White House and Senate that want to drive us drive us deeper into insolvency. I’d have thought that was elementary, at least here at National Review. But then I read this mindboggling passage:

How would that work exactly? President Obama would say, “Okay, you guys are serious, here’s another $21 billion”? Really? If that were such a fail-proof strategy, why stop there? Why not demand the full repeal of Obamacare, the immediate enactment of Paul Ryan’s budget and the resignations of Pelosi, Reid, Obama et al?

I’m disappointed that Andrew evidently thinks I am an imbecile. But okay, let me explain “exactly” how that would work. Republicans refuse to agree to a budget that funds the Obama Left’s agenda items, or at least refuses to fund them at the levels proposed by Democrats. There is, of course, downside to doing this because small government conservatives are not no government conservatives. When government is shut down — even though it’s never really completely shut down — it is not only the absurdly extravagant spending that is cut off; also stopped is some spending that we would all agree is essential. That is why there is political risk involved. Contrary to Andrew’s assumptions, however, responsible leadership is not always on the look-out for a “fail-proof” strategy, nor is it paralyzed by polls — taken before a shutdown has happened, much less is explained — that tell us what “independents” are thinking. When responsible leaders are elected to leadership positions precisely because they have convinced voters that there is a spending crisis, they take the meaningful action the Constitution puts them in a position to take. Because they are in the right (i.e., because this is a real crisis, not one they have manufactured for political purposes), they are also confident that they will be able to move the polls in their direction by boldly explaining why their actions are not extreme but, in fact, are the only rational response to the straits we are in.

In this instance, here is the calculation that ought to be made: (a) there … is … no … money; (b) therefore, the interest on what we borrow to spend at current levels is already catastrophic even if another $1.5 trillion is not added to our tab; (c) quite apart from the fact that some of the countries to which we owe this mountain of debt are not our friends, every day we allow this death-spiral to continue we are stealing from our children, our grandchildren, and the future prosperity of our country; (d) the risk of shutting down some of the essential spending that government must do is thus outweighed by the benefit of stopping the obscene spending; (e) the dire straits just described are real, not something concocted for political advantage, and therefore you should be confident that you can win the debate by convincing skeptics on points just described; and (f) winning the public debate will make the other political actors in the equation (Obama and congressional Democrats) cave, even though the (decreasingly influential) mainstream media is with Obama (see, e.g., closing Gitmo, civilian trial for KSM, and myriad other Obama flip-flops).

So no, Andrew, it’s not a matter of, presto, President Obama suddenly says, “Okay, you guys are serious.” It’s a matter of Republicans in the House actually doing the hard work they were elected to do, a matter of making it pluperfectly obvious that they are serious. So, for example, Republicans could explain to the President that $61 billion in spending cuts — a goal that was always dismally unserious in light of the hole, the canyon, we’re in — was nothing more than the bargain price they were willing to settle for in order to avoid a government shutdown. They could tell the President that if the government has to shut down because he fails to agree to a budget with this embarrassingly modest level of cuts – cuts that won’t cover two months’ borrowing in a budget that still disastrously adds $1.5 trillion to the national debt — the price (the amount of cuts demanded for government to reopen) goes up. Then, they would have to show they meant what they said by sticking to it. Obama comes to realize that if he does not settle, his priorities will not be funded, period — this is not going to be one of those faux dramas where, somewhere down the road, all the money not spent while government was shut down gets restored. The daily non-running of the government becomes money saved so that more is available to pay down the debt.

Andrew’s most vapid point is that there is no difference between a shutdown strategy for achieving spending reductions and a shutdown strategy for such goals as the full repeal of Obamacare, enactment of the Ryan plan, or the resignations of Pelosi, Reid, and Obama. The strategy I am describing is tailored to achieve a constitutionally valid objective that is in line with the political realities and appetites of the moment. At issue is a budget debate for fiscal 2011. It is not an occasion for repealing Obamacare, though it should be an occasion for defunding it — Obamacare would remain on the books and the fight to repeal it would await a more appropriate vehicle. I am not as big a fan of the Ryan plan as some conservatives are, but even if I were, it’s stated goals are not what the 2011 budget battle is over and the hard political work for achieving Ryan’s goals has barely begun — it’s not close to being ready. And no one is looking for top Democrats (two of whom were just reelected) to resign; we have constitutional processes for unseating politicians with whom we disagree, namely, elections. That is not something responsible leaders try to achieve in an unrelated battle over an annual budget — unless they intend on discrediting themselves and undermining their position on the budget.

Evidently, Andrew can’t imagine independents “rallying to the Republican cause” because he doesn’t see any material difference between positing a bulletproof shutdown case that $39B in spending cuts is utterly inadequate and positing a ludicrous shut-down case that President Obama, Senator Reid, and Majority Leader Pelosi must resign. Maybe that’s because he assumes the inevitable media megaphone for the Left’s “death-to-granny” demagoguery will always work. Regrettably, I think that’s the way GOP leadership sees things, too — that they are no more capable of making the compelling case than the stupid one, and that, even if they were more adept, the public is too brainwashed by the media to grasp the difference. That’s probably why, when Republicans last controlled all political components of budget-making, they ran gargantuan budget deficits that appear tame only by Obama standards. It’s why I never took their pledge seriously and why I’m convinced they’ll always promise to fight next time but never actually do it.

The GOP’s $61B in cuts was serious in only one sense: It was something they promised to do — a meager promise, but a promise nonetheless. When push came to mild shove, they abandoned it. And what’s especially pathetic is the rationale for abandoning it: $61B was such an inconsequential promise as to be a pittance not worth fighting for in light of the vastness of the debt. But don’t you worry: next time, why, they’ll really, really fight to the death — or until the mainstream media says nasty things about them, whichever comes first.

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