House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), still struggling badly to persuade the public that his fiscal rhetoric makes sense, held another Capitol Hill event this morning -- except this one included charts and hashtags (thanks to my colleague Nazanin Rafsanjani for the tip).
The point of the Speaker's remarks was to push a new message that Boehner seems excited about: "Spending is the problem." It's a phrase that Republicans seem to think solves their political troubles -- why won't the GOP compromise and accept higher tax rates on the wealthiest Americans? Because revenue isn't the problem; spending is the problem.
The Speaker even had a Paul Ryan chart, and it's not like Ryan has a reputation for making things up, right?
By focusing solely on one side of the ledger, Boehner hopes to push the debate onto more comfortable terrain. He doesn't want a debate about reducing the debt and moving towards a balanced budget; he wants a debate about shrinking government. This isn't about finding a post-election compromise with those who won with broad public support; this is about the Republican crusade to cut public investments and weaken public institutions for purely ideological ends.
If the Speaker and his caucus can persuade folks that "spending is the problem" -- and there are no other problems -- it will serve as a counterweight to Democratic goals of a "balanced," bipartisan solution.
The flaw in Boehner's pitch? Spending is not the problem.
For Republicans, it's an incontrovertible fact that President Obama has thrown caution to wind and increased spending dramatically in his first term, writing checks like there is no tomorrow. In reality, government spending has gone down as a percentage of GDP, a fact that's been documented many, many times. What's more, Obama accepted $1 trillion in spending cuts just last year, and the White House is offering additional spending cuts as part the ongoing fiscal talks.
It's true that spending is set to increase in the coming years, but that's not because rascally Democrats are fiscally irresponsible; it's because of an aging population and rising health care costs.
There are modest steps we can take now to deal with these long-term fiscal challenges, but to date, Republicans have opposed all of them.
We can also go one step further, and ask the House Speaker where his plan to cut spending is, if in fact, spending is the problem. Boehner has initiated these fiscal talks, but has not yet produced a detailed plan to do, well, anything -- we don't know exactly what kind of cuts he wants in social insurance programs; we don't know exactly where he intends to find new revenue; and we don't know exactly what spending cuts he expects to see.
Jon Chait explained yesterday that the problem is "an epistemological gulf," created by a Republican impression of government spending that's built on "hazy, abstract notions that don't match reality and can't be translated into a workable program."
We all know Republicans want to spend less money. So the construction of the debate appears, on the surface, to be a pretty simple continuum based on policy preferences. Republicans like Mitch McConnell say government spending is “out of control” and would, at least ideally, like to bring it into line with revenue entirely through spending cuts. Democrats like Obama endorse a “balanced” solution with revenue and taxes. Right-thinking centrists, like the CEO community and their publicists like Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei, think we should cut deeply into entitlement spending while also raising tax revenue. (VandeHei, in a video accompanying his execrable story, asserts, “There’s money to be cut everywhere.”)There really isn’t money to be cut everywhere. The United States spends way less money on social services than do other advanced countries, and even that low figure is inflated by our sky-high health-care prices. The retirement benefits to programs like Social Security are quite meager. Public infrastructure is grossly underfunded. [...]It's true that Paul Ryan's budget plan had some deep cuts. But none of those cuts touched Medicare for the next decade or Social Security at all. Ryan just kicked the crap out of the poor. So, that provision aside, if you're not willing to inflict epic levels of suffering on the very poor, there just aren't a lot of cuts to be had out there.
That's not what we heard from Boehner this morning, but it's the truth. Chait concluded, "It's not just that Republicans disagree with this; they don't seem to understand it. The absence of a Republican spending proposal is not just a negotiating tactic but a howling void where a specific grasp of the role of government ought to be. And negotiating around that void is extremely hard to do. The spending cuts aren't there because they can't be found."