The Corner

Re: McCarthy v. Stiles — A Response to Dan Foster

Dan, I’ve already had plenty to say, but at the risk of further trying our readers’ patience — to say nothing of the patience of my fellow passengers on the Acela — I will respond to your points in the order you make them.

1. If we don’t think responsible representatives in a democracy should take big political risks and can, by the force of argument, move public opinion in their direction, I do not understand what the point of having National Review is. Put aside that in the 1990s, a GOP Congress overcame a rhetorically gifted left-wing Democratic president and a hostile media to achieve welfare reform and balanced budgets. Put aside that we’ve been able to stop many of Obama’s worst policy preferences by being right and moving public opinion despite Obama’s rhetorical gifts, his accommodating media, and — at least early on — his extraordinarily high approval numbers. If we no longer believe that compelling arguments boldly made can make possible what was previously thought impossible, why are we in business?

2. I’m starting to feel like I am talking to the wall, but I’ll say it again: There is no money. We are broke. We’re far afield from what I started talking about, which was not an impossibly ambitious effort to solve all our financial woes in one fell swoop but a starkly modest insistence that the Republicans should do what they promised to do and cut $61B rather what is said now to be $39B. (And as Dan notes, in referring to the defunding of new IRS agents, even the $39B in “cuts” is an exaggeration since, using Washington math, “cuts” include not just actual spending reductions but the mere cancellation of what would otherwise have been spending increases.)

If you are telling me there are not another $22 billion that can be cut from a multi-trillion dollar budget, I think that’s absurd. But even if you want to change the subject to how you eliminate deficit spending rather than just do the paltry thing the GOP promised to do, the fact that we have no money to sustain the desired budget ought to be somewhat relevant, don’t you think? To my mind, you are asking the wrong question. The right way to look at this is that we can no longer afford to run deficits. The fundamental question is not “What do we cut?” It is “What can we afford to spend?”

I heard Rep. Cantor on Fox Sunday make the astounding claim that Republicans were just trying to do what a family has to do to tighten its belt in trying times. But a family that is already in swimming in debt first makes the determination not to borrow any more. Then it says, “Let’s look at how much money we have coming in, what obligations we are believe we must pay, what obligations we think we should pay if we can swing it, and what other things we’d like to buy if there’s anything left over.” The only things I see that we absolutely have to pay are (a) interest on the debt, since our credit is not just a matter of honor but crucial to our ability to borrow if there is a true crisis (e.g., Pearl Harbor, 9/11); and (b) national security (real national security — I’m not talking “Muslim outreach” here), since that is the primary function of the federal government. Entitlements are in the category of “what we believe we must pay” — but like everything else, they are subject to the availability of money, and if there is not enough money to pay them, they have to be cut.

The rest resolves itself in accordance with what those accountable for allocating and spending judge to be the priorities — but always with the caveats that these officials are limited to the money we have coming in and that they will be politically accountable if they spend that money foolishly (e.g., if they neglect domestic security or the integrity of the currency to do, say, health care and eduction — things that can be done and done better by others). But please don’t tell me about “non-defense discretionary spending” targets in a proposed budget that reflects someone’s dreams. If there is no money there is no money. If we can’t afford things, they have to be cut regardless of how we feel about that. You figure out what your means are and then you plan to spend. You don’t figure out your dreams and then plan to borrow — not when you’re tapped out.

3. The distinction between a budget and a continuing resolution does not change what I say above. I think you are missing the big issues (no money, things are too complex and time consuming because government is doing way more than government ought to be doing) in a morass of process. But again, we’re talking in the short term about something very narrow: an unfulfilled promise to cut another $22B. It is in that context that I have raised the longer term challenge to stop and then roll-back deficit-spending until we reach a point where our debt is like the mortgage on the family home — not so unreasonably large that we have to go further in debt to make the payments.

I hear what you’re saying about the “context” in which it’s appropriate to make major changes – that is why I thought Andrew’s point about using a shutdown to force resignations of top Democrats was so ludicrous. Yet, I also look over at the Democrats and see a party that would use a C.R. or any other available vehicle — legal or, as Wisconsin reaffirms, illegal — to achieve gigantic changes supported by their activists. It can’t be that only one of the boxers fights by the Marquis of Queensbury rules.

4 & 5. The fact that unsavory changes and practices have degraded the constitutional framework that makes the House supreme on matters of spending does not mean that this framework was not a worthy idea, and one that still serves a worthy purpose. That purpose is the one Dan accurately describes: to vest responsibility for public spending in the political actors closest to the public that is expected to foot the bill. With due respect, if Dan finds that terrifying, it is because he finds the potential abuses inherent in the republican form of democracy terrifying. I don’t.

All systems can be abused, but I think this one is vastly preferable. The American people are basically conservative and don’t want radical change unless and until there are radical problems that must be dealt with. If the House does something rash, if it tries to jerk the ship of state willy-nilly by, for example, taking over one-sixth of the economy with a terribly unpopular health-care plan, the people throw them out. That serves as a valuable lesson to sitting House members not to get too far out in front of where the public is – you don’t shrink from trying to make your case on the crucial issues of the day, but you also don’t try to force down people’s throats something they don’t want. And when you have been elected because spending is out of control and Obamacare is unpopular, it gives you a lot of political wind at your back to deal with out of control spending and Obamacare.

In any event, I have a lot more confidence in that People/House dynamic controlling the “functioning of government” than I do in a bunch of unelected and unaccountable bureaucrats and judges telling us how government must function — whether we like it or not. And I also have more confidence in the People/House dynamic than I do in having House members abdicate their responsibilities on spending to presidents and senators who face the voters far less often and thus don’t feel the same pressure of accountability.

Finally, I accept Dan’s contention that more than $39B may not have been possible – but only if we add: without shutting down the government for a few days, or perhaps longer. I don’t accept that it was not possible to force a modest additional few tens of billions in cuts (at the very least, $22B) out of an annual budget as monstrous as the one under which the federal government now operates. And I don’t agree that it was inconsequential for the Republicans, in their first opportunity to demonstrate resolve on the issue that got them elected in record numbers, to shrink from doing the little they promised to do. I don’t disagree with Derb’s take — he will no doubt correct me if I have misunderstood him, but I don’t see how what I am saying is different from what I take him to be saying. 

Most Popular


The Gun-Control Debate Could Break America

Last night, the nation witnessed what looked a lot like an extended version of the famous “two minutes hate” from George Orwell’s novel 1984. During a CNN town hall on gun control, a furious crowd of Americans jeered at two conservatives, Marco Rubio and Dana Loesch, who stood in defense of the Second ... Read More
Film & TV

Why We Can’t Have Wakanda

SPOILERS AHEAD Black Panther is a really good movie that lives up to the hype in just about every way. Surely someone at Marvel Studios had an early doubt, reading the script and thinking: “Wait, we’re going to have hundreds of African warriors in brightly colored tribal garb, using ancient weapons, ... Read More
Law & the Courts

Obstruction Confusions

In his Lawfare critique of one of my several columns about the purported obstruction case against President Trump, Gabriel Schoenfeld loses me — as I suspect he will lose others — when he says of himself, “I do not think I am Trump-deranged.” Gabe graciously expresses fondness for me, and the feeling is ... Read More
Science & Tech

Set NASA Free

The Trump administration has proposed shifting the International Space Station from a NASA-exclusive research facility to a semi-public, semi-private one. Its plan would nix all government funding for the ISS by 2025 and award at least $150 million per year to NASA to help with the transition. This would be a ... Read More