Republican 'Pledge': slightly smaller government and much bigger deficits

The Republican 'Pledge to America' offers vague promises and zero fiscal responsibility.

J. Scott Applewhite / AP
House Minority Leader John Boehner introduces the GOP agenda, "A Pledge to America", on Sept. 23, at a lumber yard in Sterling, Va. From left are: House Minority Whip Eric Cantor of Va., Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., Boehner, and Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind.

Now it is official. Neither Democrats nor Republicans will run in 2010 on a serious platform to address the budget deficit.

We knew the Obama Administration and the Democrats weren’t going there. Now, despite all the breathless publicity given to the tea party’s alleged fiscal conservatism, neither are Republicans. The House GOP’s Pledge to America is an attempt to win support of fiscal conservatives without actually reducing the deficit. Indeed, taken together, the promises included in the document would result in long-term deficits far higher than if Congress merely maintained the status quo for the next two years.

The campaign and governing manifesto that House Republicans rolled out today is filled with rhetoric about smaller government. It begins with a watered-down, self-conscious echoe of the Declaration of Independence in its cry for less intrusive federal government. It is sad evidence of what happens to prose-by-committee.

But when it gets down to specifics, the pledge really turns to mush. The GOP says it would cut government spending to pre-2009 levels and cap future discretionary spending. But in the same breath, the Republican lawmakers say they’d exempt spending for “seniors, veterans and our troops” from their rollback. And they never tell us at what level they’d freeze future outlays, or for how long.

Then, in a classic bit of Washingtonese, the pledge goes on to say this: “Instead of pushing off our fiscal challenges, we will reform the budget process to ensure that Congress begins making the decisions that are necessary to protect our entitlement programs for today’s seniors and future generations.”

Huh? Those entitlement programs for seniors--and the need for taxes to pay for them-- are the nation’s long-term fiscal challenge. By mid-century, according to the Congressional Budget Office, every penny of federal tax revenue will go to pay for Medicare, Social Security, and Medicaid (a large share of which is spent on long-term care for the elderly), as well as the interest on the debt needed to fund these programs.

Compared to these benefits for seniors, all other federal spending—the main target of the GOP’s manifesto-- is loose change in the fiscal sofa cushion.

Thus, what this bit of Orwellian double-speak really means is: “We have absolutely no intention of telling you how we will meet our fiscal challenges today. Sometime after the election, we'll let you know how we’d slow the growth of Social Security and Medicare.”

When it comes to revenues, the GOP reprises its long-term pledge to permanently extend all of the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts. Plus it adds a few more tax breaks, including a proposal to give small businesses a new 20 percent deduction. For those interested in deficit reduction, these tax cuts would dwarf any spending cuts in the GOP agenda.

As a political document, the pledge seems in synch with the tea party/GOP base: Smaller government, lower taxes, but little real interest in tough fiscal decisions. Like the Contract with America before it, the pledge may succeed in driving votes. But as a governing platform, it is neither serious nor credible

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