Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Deficits

The Journal's lead editorial this morning is devoted to some fairly justified complaints about the Republican Congress' "deficit reduction" bill. This makes a disorienting but briefly refreshing change from most media coverage of the debate, which has focused on the $50 billion in cuts the Republicans in the House proposed without noting that this was an increase from the originally planned $35 billion, or that the spending cuts are spread over five years, making the supposedly austere Republican budget plan $3 billion a year cheaper than the original plan. This is, as the Journal accurately notes, a drop in the bucket of Republican fiscal profligacy over the last five years.

Not surprisingly, the vertiginous experience of intellectual honesty doesn't last long. The editorial continues in the long line of Journal editorials that deliberately conflate spending restraint with deficit reduction. Of course, the budget contains both revenues and expenses. But for the first time in the history of the federal budget process, Republicans in Congress have chosen to split the budget reconciliation bill into two separate halves. One is for spending cuts, which amount to somewhere between $35 and $59 billion, depending on which bill the Republicans ultimately manage to pass. The second is for tax cuts, which will total about $70 billion. In other words, the two bills are really just separate parts of a single budget reconciliation, which will expand the deficit marginally over the next five years.

The only possible reason for Republicans in Congress to have adopted this unwieldy system is to conceal the cost of the tax cuts and allow their members to pretend to vote to bring the budget closer to balance, while at the same time setting the stage for even larger deficits in the future. The Journal editorial mentions none of this, because it would clarify the point that they want to obscure. For all of their complaints about fiscal profligacy and "Democrats who fancy themselves as deficit hawks," the Journal's real complaint isn't about deficits at all. The editors want to cut spending on Social Security, health care, food stamps, and other entitlement programs. It's understandable that the Journal editors would prefer to dress up these unpopular policy preferences to look like efforts to achieve the more popular goal of a balanced budget. But as long as they refuse to account for the costs of their beloved tax cuts, they ought to abandon the pretense of being concerned about deficits, rather than simply about cutting spending on programs that benefit the poor and middle class.

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