The Republicans’ alternative budget contains more good policy ideas and fewer bad policy ideas than President Obama’s budget. While I agree with every point Phil has made, I’ll wait to see how it is scored before I offer a detailed critique or qualified defense. But let’s look at the whole concept of a Republican budget proposal in historical perspective.
An alternative budget offered by a minority party almost by definition will not pass. So the party proposing the alternative budget faces two challenges. The first is to present a spending blueprint that offers a clear and compelling contrast to the president’s vision, forming the basis of future policymaking when the party returns to power. That’s hard enough. But you have to do that while also meeting the second challenge: Crafting the budget so that you don’t put your party on record voting for some easily distorted provision that will go unenacted. Budget cuts are often most politically damaging to the party that supports them when they don’t pass.
When the spending cuts are actually imposed, people get to see that the economy did not go south and their Social Security checks kept coming. When the spending cuts are debated, voted on, and defeated, there is no real-world corrective to the hysterical projections of starving babies and deepening poverty. There is just a vote standing in isolation that makes good fodder for television ads. This sometimes even happens to the majority party — remember the Medicare gambit of the Gingrich Congress in 1995.
In 1993, Republicans faced these challenges. They needed to come up with a budet that dealt seriously with the deficit without raising taxes as Bill Clinton proposed to do. The House Republicans mostly united around John Kasich’s “Cutting Spending First” plan (a nice play on the Clintonian “Putting People First”). It contained some controversial provisions, like raising the retirement age for some federal employees, but mostly avoided a full frontal assault on entitlement. Nevertheless, it offered serious spending cuts and block-grant reforms of means-tested programs that later became part of the GOP platform. And it offered $450 billion in deficit reduction without tax hikes.
So serious was Cutting Spending First that the Clinton administration often pretended the alternative did not exist. They continued to claim that Republicans hadn’t proposed any spending cuts. When challenged, White House spokeswoman Dee Dee Myers said it didn’t count as the Republican alternative because not all Republicans supported it. The House GOP leadership, then including Bob Michel, did support it, and so did 80 percent of House Republicans on the floor.
Even a decent alternative budget won’t pass and won’t silence the president’s barbs about Republicans having a “short memory.” But a solid alternative did help give the Republicans something to run on in 1994 and a contrast with the Clinton administration, which was offering a tax increase many Americans didn’t want.