The Budget-Cutting Cycle: Delusion, Failure, Recrimination

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JONATHAN CHAIT OCTOBER 28, 2010

The Budget-Cutting Cycle: Delusion, Failure, Recrimination

Republican domestic policymaking is an endless loop of trying to get around the fact that Americans do not want to cut actual government spending programs. They may disapprove of spending in the abstract, but this disapproval is based entirely on a lack of understanding of what the government spends money on. This is true even of Republican voters:

Seventy-one percent of likely Republican voters in 10 House battleground districts said Congress should cut spending, even if it means fewer projects and earmarks for their local areas. A majority of likely independent voters, 56 percent, think the same.
 
But the same poll found that Republicans and independents balk at the prospect of cutting programs that constitute a vastly larger portion of the federal budget....

A majority of Republicans, 57 percent, as well as 65 percent of independents, say they are not willing to accept cuts to Social Security and Medicaid to trim the deficit.
 
Six in 10 Republicans and 53 percent of independents said they would not accept cuts to defense and homeland-security spending.

This is why Republicans confine all their cuts to the small corner of the budget known as domestic discretionary spending. But, of course, even most domestic discretionary spending programs are popular. You can call for cuts in this category of spending precisely because it is that, a category. When you get down to the actual programs, you're dealing with a lot of popular stuff.

You almost never see conservatives acknowledge that this reality is the basis of their political predicament. Thus are are stuck in the endless loop of failure and recrimination. The loop begins with Republicans gaining power on the basis of promising to cut unspecified programs, or perhaps programs accounting for a tiny proportion of the federal budget. That is the stage of the cycle we are currently in. Then Republicans obtain power and have to confront the fact that most spending programs are popular, and so they must choose between destroying their own popularity by taking on programs like Medicare, or failing to materially cut spending. So they settle on tax cuts instead of spending cuts. Then eventually their supporters conclude that they have been betrayed by their leaders, and cast about for new leaders with the willpower to really cut spending this time.

As I've been saying over and over, there is a way around this. Republicans can make a bipartisan deal and obtain Democratic cover for cuts in popular spending programs. But the price of this deal is to impose shared sacrifice on the rich and violate the fundamental republican taboo against ever allowing revenue increases. Since the party cannot violate that taboo, it's back to the cycle of failure, recrimination, and self-delusion. Right now, conservatives are in the hopeful self-delusion phase. Look, these new leaders have learned their lesson! They sound serious!

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posted in: jonathan chait, congress, medicare

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