Republicans Play a Solo Game of Chicken -- and Lose

If you actually want to meaningfully reduce the size of government, you need to be against specific things even if they benefit voters in your district.

A few years ago, when Republicans were rushing headlong into a pointless showdown over the debt ceiling, I made the above graph to show why this wouldn't work.

The point being that Republicans were not, in fact, interested in getting rid of border security or the courts, or Social security and Medicare, or military payrolls, or Veterans Administration benefits. Nor were they in favor of raising taxes or defaulting on our interest payments on the national debt. And since the government didn't have quite enough money to pay for all those things, much less all the other things that the government does, Republicans were ultimately not going to be willing to forbid any further borrowing.

In this I was proved correct, and the debt ceiling showdown accomplished little besides making voters mad at Republicans. From which Republicans in the House should have learned an important lesson: It is not enough to be against spending in aggregate, you also need to be against spending on specific things. And if you actually want to meaningfully reduce the size of government, you need to be against specific things even if they benefit voters in your district.

Well, Republicans have once again demonstrated that they aren't willing to get specific . . . which is to say that they aren't willing to get real. Brian Beutler of Talking Points Memo reports:

"But many close Congress watchers -- and indeed many Congressional Democrats -- have long suspected that their votes for Ryan's budgets were a form of cheap talk. That Republicans would chicken out if it ever came time to fill in the blanks. Particularly the calls for deep but unspecified domestic discretionary spending cuts.

The event in question was the failure of the House leadership to even bring to a vote a spending package for the Departments of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development. Beutler continues:

"Today's Transportation/HUD failure confirms that suspicion. Republicans don't control government. But ahead of the deadline for funding it, their plan was to proceed as if the Ryan budget was binding, and pass spending bills to actualize it -- to stake out a bargaining position with the Senate at the right-most end of the possible.

"But they can't do it. It turns out that when you draft bills enumerating all the specific cuts required to comply with the budget's parameters, they don't come anywhere close to having enough political support to pass. Even in the GOP House. Slash community development block grants by 50 percent, and you don't just lose the Democrats, you lose a lot of Republicans who care about their districts. Combine that with nihilist defectors who won't vote for any appropriations unless they force the President to sign an Obamacare repeal bill at a bonfire ceremony on the House floor, and suddenly you're nowhere near 218."

Don't get me wrong: I am sympathetic to the cause of cutting government spending. I myself think that community development block grants should probably be cut by 100 percent. But in order to cut government spending, you're going to have to actually, y'know, cut some government spending. A fond wish for a better world just won't do.

Of course, I don't have to run for office. This most recent quandary reflects not only the peculiar dynamics of the 2010 wave election that swept a younger, more ideological crew into the House; it also reflects the deep incoherence of voters on this. Voters want government spending cut, but only on foreign aid and some non-specific welfare spending on hazily-imagined freeloaders. They want taxes raised, but only on rich people who made their money in the banking industry. Oh, and they want to close the deficit. Since these desires cannot all three be reconciled, public policy is bound to be somewhat incoherent. Particularly since the congressional collegiality of yesteryear, which allowed legislators to collude to exclude the most unreasonable voter demands from the public debate, has largely evaporated. Washington political parties have been descending into naked rage at the mere existence of their opposition for quite some time. Now they've arrived.

If Republicans can't get serious about cutting spending, then they ought to get serious about something else that they can actually commit to -- streamlining regulation, simplifying the tax system, or some other opportunity agenda that the whole caucus can sign on to. Arguing for bills they can't pass is a waste of everyone's time.

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