The more we get into the budget debacle, the more we discover that the bulk of the GOP is all show:
In normal times, the House and Senate would each pass a budget, the differences between those budgets would be resolved, and appropriators in both chambers would have binding limits both on how much money to spend, and on which large executive agencies to spend it.
But these aren’t normal times. Republicans have refused to negotiate away their budget differences with Democrats, and have instead instructed their appropriators to use the House GOP budget as a blueprint for funding the government beyond September.
Like all recent GOP budgets, this year’s proposes lots of spending on defense and security, at the expense of all other programs. Specifically, it sets the total pool of discretionary dollars at sequestration levels, then funnels money from thinly stretched domestic departments (like Transportation and HUD) to the Pentagon and a few other agencies. But that’s all the budget says. It doesn’t say how to allocate the dollars, nor does it grapple in any way with the possibility that cutting domestic spending so profoundly might be unworkable. It’s an abstraction.
But many close Congress watchers — and indeed many Congressional Democrats — have long suspected that their votes for Ryan’s budgets were a form of cheap talk. That Republicans would chicken out if it ever came time to fill in the blanks. Particularly the calls for deep but unspecified domestic discretionary spending cuts.
But they can’t do it. It turns out that when you draft bills enumerating all the specific cuts required to comply with the budget’s parameters, they don’t come anywhere close to having enough political support to pass. Even in the GOP House. Slash community development block grants by 50 percent, and you don’t just lose the Democrats, you lose a lot of Republicans who care about their districts. Combine that with nihilist defectors who won’t vote for any appropriations unless they force the President to sign an Obamacare repeal bill at a bonfire ceremony on the House floor, and suddenly you’re nowhere near 218.
This is the problem I’ve been having with the GOP and many of their adherents. They talk a big talk about how they want to slash government and cut it down and balance the budget. But when push comes to shove, their priorities quickly become increasing defense spending and not cutting anything else. Even their promises of tax reform are vague and not specific. It’s telling that the primary spending cuts the Republicans passed were across-the-board automated cuts where they didn’t have to make any tough decisions or formulate a specific plan.
What we are seeing is the difference between politicking and governing. Politicking is easy: you say a bunch of vague red meat conservative shit and thunder denunciations of Obama from the rooftops. It’s necessary to get votes but it doesn’t balance budgets. Governing does. But governing is hard. You have to make specific decisions. You have to kick sacred cows. And you have to work out a deal with the other party who represent half the country without pissing off your half. Some politicians — Ronald Reagan in particular — are exceptionally good at it. Most aren’t.
As a contrast of what governing really looks like, I give you Tom Coburn. Coburn, ever year, lists specific programs he wants to cut. Coburn, just recently, came out with hundreds of billions in tax loopholes he wants to close in exchange for lower tax rates. I don’t agree with everything in Coburn’s plans. But at least it’s a plan — a specific list of budget changes that would up to $9 trillion in deficit reduction, not some vague handwavy shit that counts on future Congresses to gut programs that they never will. And Coburn, incidentally, stakes out this detailed conservative position while being good friends with the President.
I hate to say this, since I disagree with Coburn a lot. But we need a lot more Tom Coburns in Congress: men and women who are more interested in governing than politicking. We are seeing some of that at the state level in the likes of Scott Walker, Chris Christie and, to some extent, Rick Perry. But on the national level? I don’t see very much inspiration.