Political Hay

Dracon for President?

Nothing, nothing is as important as the financial health of the United States.

By 2.22.11

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"Draconian" was the way one Democrat described, with surprising accuracy, the budget cuts the Republicans in the House of Representatives passed before the dawn's early light last Saturday. Dracon, who gave his name to the Democrat's adjective, was an Athenian legislator in the 7th century B.C. who replaced the rule of lawgivers with the rule of law, an act that to this day rankles believers in a living constitution. Some of Dracon's laws were harsh. Some of the Republicans' cuts are also being described as harsh.

The new Republican members of the House did what they had promised they would do when they got to Washington (behavior sometimes referred to as operational consonance): they cut the budget and, with it, bennies for bureaucrats.

When the Republicans had finished their handiwork, Democrats described the results as drastic, double meat ax, death spiral, and, yes, draconian. Republicans called it democratic.

The Republicans voted to cut $61 billion out of the federal budget over the next seven months, taking non-security discretionary spending down to where it was way back in… 2008, a time, for the historically minded, when flowers bloomed, children played, dead people in Chicago voted, and life was, on the whole -- if you weren't a progressive frustrated that you had not yet managed to control… everything -- quite good.

The cut in the budget is being called "the largest cut of its kind since World War II." But the cuts are being measured from President Obama's Brobdingnagian 2010 spending level and his über-Brobdingnagian, Jonathan Swiftian 2011 budget request, both of them examples of the progressives' ratchet theory of history: spending that goes up must never, ever, be allowed to come down.

More than a hundred programs will be eliminated. Hundreds more will have their funding reduced. Some of the highest-octane proposals were eliminating funding for the pro-abortion organization Planned Parenthood, cutting off funding for implementing Obamacare, and cutting the Environmental Protection Agency's budget by a third.

Federal bureaucrats, unable to adapt to the spirit of the times, were not amused by the Republicans' keeping their promises. Nevertheless, the Internal Revenue Service's announcement that the cuts would adversely affect its operations must have brought a wry smile to a face or two, perhaps even to the face of Treasury Secretary, and chief IRS tax collector, Tim Geithner.

The National Labor Relations Board also said the cuts would have adverse effects. Given the Obama administration's pro-union activities in Wisconsin, where public employees are protesting like Greeks -- but not the Greeks of Dracon's day -- the NLRB's announcement must have been particularly welcomed by that state's governor.

Funding for some of President Obama's White House regulatory "czars" was also cut, but not, unfortunately, funding for Czarbanes-Oxley.

Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget (an organization whose logo might feature a unicorn), described the Republicans' efforts as "not a thoughtful exercise." But it is the exercises, thoughtful or otherwise, of the budgeteers of the last several years that have created the current crisis. What Americans want now is less thought and more excising.

Those who believe the country will not easily survive, or survive at all, the cuts made by the Republicans should remember this: on the morning after the Republicans passed welfare reform in 1996, the sun… rose. That reform is now generally agreed to have been a great success. President Clinton had vetoed the reform bill twice, before bowing to public pressure to sign it. Democrats had predicted death, literally, in the streets. All that died was one more piece of the liberal dream: the idea that Americans cannot manage their own lives.

The House Republicans need to make it clear they understand that some of the programs they have cut or killed may well be important, at least to some people, but that nothing, nothing is as important as the financial health of the United States, which it is their solemn duty to protect. If they fail in their duty, they will deserve the blame that historians of democracy in the future will heap upon them, always assuming that in that future there will be historians of democracy.

Dracon, according to the historian Plutarch, was asked why most of the offenses he had listed were punishable by death. Well, he said (to paraphrase), "The lesser crimes deserve death. And for the greater ones, there is, alas, nothing more draconian."

The Democrat who called the Republicans' cuts "draconian" was more accurate than he probably realized. The Republicans have condemned to death hundreds of minor programs. Many greater programs still await their sentencing.

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About the Author

Daniel Oliver is a Senior Director of White House Writers Group in Washington, D.C. He served as Chairman of the Federal Trade Commission under President Ronald Reagan.