There are a lot of problems with the House Republicans’ alternative budget, though considering its doubling of the national debt I don’t think representing a vision of the “ideal small-government society” is one of them. Ross Douthat disagrees, decrying the Republican alternative as naively ideological:
It’s as if the Democratic Party, in the aftermath of it’s 2002 and 2004 defeats, had proposed an alternative to George W. Bush’s wartime budgets that slashed defense spending dramatically, raised income taxes across the board, and invested all of the resulting revenue in a revivified AFDC, a massive cash grant to the UN, and a big new federal jobs program for “green-collar” workers, community organizers, and Planned Parenthood clinicians.
One could cheekily reply, “Good thing the Democrats waited until they were in power to start trying to do all that.” But here’s the larger problem: there is going to be inordinate upward pressure on taxes and spending even if we do nothing. That pressure will increase if the economy continues to sag, stimulating demand for government services, or if it revives, pushing people into higher tax brackets as their income rises. The baby boomers are retiring. Payroll tax surpluses are declining. Bills long delayed are coming due.
On top of that, the Obama administration is reacting to these circumstances by dramatically increasing the size and cost of the federal government — not just for the duration of the economic crisis, but permanently. There is no basis for believing the administration will be able to achieve its long-term cost reductions through health care reform to offset all this. If there was ever a time when it was necessary for somebody, anybody, to be pushing hard in the opposite direction, it’s right now.
It is of course politically risky for Republicans to try to control spending and reform entitlements. But it’s a risk they have no choice but to take. The alternative is to give up on a platform of keeping this a relatively low-tax economy and replace it with either a program of slowly, painfully managing the bankruptcy of our entitlement programs or coming up with clever new taxes to pay for them. Realistically, this probably means usually being out of power and being every bit as irrelevant to national policy-making as conservatives were in the wake of the Goldwater debacle anyway.
We’ve tried the approach of taking an axe to tax rates and regulatory red tape while just nibbling cautiously at government spending. That approach (combined with tight money) worked masterfully against stagflation when all the wise establishment hands, Republican and Democratic, said it would fail. But the failure to seriously confront spending — as the baby boomers were entering their peak earning years rather than retirement — eroded those gains almost immediately and pushed the country deeply in debt. We started taking some of the tax cuts back as early as 1982. And it isn’t the Reagan years anymore: conservatives get more bang for their buck cutting a 70 percent tax rate than slashing a 35 percent or 39.6 percent tax rate.
We’ve also tried the approach of shelving free-market health care reform the second the campaign is over, bringing up entitlements and then running away at the first peep of protest, and passing a slew of our own government programs to address voter anxieties and steal issues from the Democrats: SCHIP, No Child Left Behind, Medicare Part D, TARP. This tactic has failed even more spectacularly, digging the hole in which we currently find ourselves.
Maybe there’s some Grand New Party-style compromise that can get us out of this predicament. More likely, there isn’t. But for all their numerous flaws, Paul Ryan and the House Republicans are at least trying to deal with this fiscal climate on Republican terms.
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