The Washington Post

The hard choices for the GOP in real budget math

Brian Beutler has a good item today pointing out that the sequester may actually be working:

It took a year to reach this point, just five months out from the fiscal cliff. But this was the theory of the defense sequester — to force the GOP to recognize that a persistent refusal to ever raise revenue won’t just threaten social programs beloved by liberals, but the defense industrial complex they’ve nurtured for decades.

Actually, there are two ways of looking at this. Beutler goes with the approach that Republicans are being unreasonable in rejecting any tax increases, and the sequester pushes them to relent.

I prefer a slightly different interpretation. What’s really unreasonable about the Republican budget platform is that the numbers don’t add up. Republicans claim that they want to balance the budget; never raise a penny of new taxes, and in fact slash taxes even more; slash federal government spending; and to do all that while protecting a wide range of government programs, certainly including military spending but also including Social Security, Medicare at least for current recipients, infrastructure, and when you press them just about every specific program except for foreign aid that doesn’t go to Israel. To do all of that, however, is mathematically impossible. You might recognize this: it matches, more or less, the inconsistent and logically impossible preferences that pollsters find when they ask voters about the budget. As John Sides points out in the linked post, however, Americans will if pressed reveal preferences. What the sequester is trying to do is to get Republicans to admit to theirs.

Why is that so important? The truth is that budgeting normally lends itself pretty easily to compromise. We’re not talking here about allowing or not allowing an abortion; we’re talking about (for example) spending $10 billion or $5 billion, and it’s not hard to see the obvious compromise if one party holds the House and the other holds the Senate and the White House.

One thing that gets in the way of cutting a deal is tea party hostility to the very idea of compromise. But the additional problem here is the very real possibility that Republicans, from supposed budget whiz Paul Ryan down, simply do not realize that their numbers don’t add up. What the sequester procedure really forces them to do is to make real choices, backed by real numbers. That may mean that they give on taxes; it may mean that they give on military spending; it most likely means that they’ll do neither, and just give on the deficit. But one way or another, they’re going to have to make some tough choices. After that, negotiating a deal shouldn’t be all that hard.


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