House Speaker John Boehner and President Barack Obama
House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and President Obama. (Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press)

President Obama says he wants a “balanced” approach to avoid the budget madness known as sequestration. So, in a not-so-clever rhetorical sleight of hand, some conservative commentators are trying to use the term against the president, claiming that Obama’s proposal both to cut spending and to raise revenue via tax reform is far from “balanced.”

In his latest column, Post columnist Charles Krauthammer writes:

Republicans should explain — message No. 1 — that in the fiscal-cliff deal the president already got major tax hikes with no corresponding spending cuts. Now it is time for a nation $16 trillion in debt to cut spending. That’s balance.

Except before the fiscal cliff deal were two budget bargains in which the Republican House got spending cuts with no corresponding increases in revenue. True, they weren’t cuts to Medicare, the big entitlement program that is poised to gobble up the federal budget in future years. They didn’t include obvious federal benefits adjustments such as the chained CPI. But those cuts still added up to more than the meager — hardly “major” — $620 billion in tax hikes the president obtained in the fiscal cliff settlement.

Krauthammer goes on to state that “the sequester is for cutting.” That echoes Post blogger Jennifer Rubin, who wrote this about about Obama’s late calls for “balance”:

Republicans are right that it is not balanced to replace an all-spending cuts sequester with a mix of spending and tax hikes.

This line of reasoning relies on the assumption that, when Congress established the $1.2 billion sequester, it committed the nation to $1.2 billion in spending cuts of some kind. But it certainly didn’t. The whole point was that Washington couldn’t agree on how to achieve that amount of deficit reduction — cuts, revenue or both? — so lawmakers promised to try again later, and punish themselves with the sequester if they failed to craft a different deficit-reduction package.

These arguments are bizarre for two reasons. First, they only make sense if one ignores history. Second, they demonstrate the length to which the right is going, against all reason, to justify refusal of tax reform that raises revenue. The tax code is riddled with billions upon billions in economically inefficient giveaways to politically favored groups. They distort the economy, and they rob the Treasury of money. Cutting them is economically equivalent to cutting spending. But you don’t have to believe me. This 2010 op-ed from conservative economic Martin Feldstein, President Reagan’s chief economic adviser, makes the case for drawing no distinction between cutting so-called “tax-expenditures” to reduce deficits and cutting spending in the way Republicans favor to reduce deficits.

It’s a lot more convincing than rhetorical voodoo.

Stephen Stromberg is a Post editorial writer. He specializes in domestic policy, including energy, the environment, legal affairs and public health.