Dana Milbank
Opinion writer June 15, 2011

Republicans slash and spurn

Dana Milbank writes about political theater in the nation’s capital. He joined the Post as a political reporter in 2000. View Archive

Give House Republicans credit for persistence.

After they passed Paul Ryan’s plan to cut trillions of dollars in government spending, Republicans heard an earful from constituents worried about losing their Medicare and other treasured programs. But instead of scaling back their ambitions, a group of House Republicans returned to Washington and voted for trillions more in cuts.

On Wednesday afternoon, a House committee voted along party lines, 20 to 12, for a plan that would force cuts that make Ryan’s look modest — the equivalent of an across-the-board reduction of 25 percent in everything the government does, from Social Security to national defense.

The committee that performed this defiant act was not Ryan’s budget committee but the House Judiciary Committee, which approved a constitutional amendment that would effectively limit government spending to 18 percent of gross domestic product beginning in 2017, down from the current level of nearly 24 percent. Ryan’s budget, by contrast, wouldn’t reduce spending to 18 percent until after 2040.

There wasn’t much attention to this display of stick-to-itiveness, probably because the constitutional amendment stands little chance of getting the two-thirds votes it would need in both houses. There were only a couple of reporters on hand, most of the public seats were empty, and even several of the lawmakers were missing.

That’s unfortunate. When a congressional committee tries to rewrite the Constitution to include a proposal that would permanently end many of the federal government’s functions, you’d think it would be done with solemnity. Instead, the lawmakers handled it with their usual acrimony — and, on the Republican side, some laughter at the minority complaints.

“It’s impossible to see how the government would be under 18 percent without slashing Social Security and Medicare in the future or without eliminating the military practically in its entirety,” protested Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.).

“This bill would cut total funding for non-defense discretionary programs by approximately 70 percent in 2021, by more than $3 trillion over 10 years,” Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.) charged. Jackson Lee argued that this would lead to more cases like that of a boy who died from an abscessed tooth because “he had no access to health care.”

Republicans on the committee were unimpressed with this story. “The gentlelady talks about the riveting story of one child,” said Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.). “I could give you the riveting story of all children in America” who will be out of luck when entitlement programs “will be broke.”

“Well said,” added Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.).

“Well said,” echoed Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa).

Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.), referring to the amendment as “the Grim Reaper,” accused Republicans of “an assault on the middle class and the poor of this country” and an “orchestrated attack” on the weak — particularly children.

Three Republicans on the panel — Bob Goodlatte (Va.), Ted Poe (Tex.) and Jim Jordan (Ohio) — laughed at Johnson’s complaint.

Franks took this opportunity to attack the Democrats over abortion rights. “The party or group that supports allowing a policy that sees 4,000 children cut to pieces every day should not attack anyone on this side for trying to cut children,” he proclaimed.

Lungren, for his part, said Johnson was preventing “an adult conversation.” He added: “I would like to have at least an intelligent discussion.”

“I’m sorry that I’m not enunciating myself clearly or intelligently,” Johnson replied, bitterly.

After that exchange, Lungren went over to a colleague on the Republican side and shared a laugh. “We’re having much too much fun here today,” he said privately. “With a dismissive look over at Johnson and his Democratic colleagues, Lungren added, “Look what we’re up against.”