WATCHING Republican moderates stand up to the congressional leadership is a bit like experiencing Indian summer: It's enjoyable even though you know that it can end at any moment. Last week's display of moderate backbone was especially refreshing because it was bicameral. Not only did the Senate Finance Committee have to call off a session to extend some of the Bush tax cuts after Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine) refused to go along, but -- even more surprising -- House leaders had to postpone a vote on a budget-cutting bill when GOP moderates balked at the degree to which the cuts would come at the expense of the poorest Americans.
As always, though, the question with the moderates is whether this display of independence will last -- and indeed, House leaders expressed confidence that they'd be able to make enough changes to lure a few of the waverers. What's wrong with the legislation, though, can't be fixed with a few tweaks. For one thing, it's miscast as a measure that would cut $50 billion from the deficit over five years, a supposed devotion to fiscal restraint that's hard to take seriously when it's about to be followed by a measure that would add to the deficit by enacting more than that in tax cuts over the same period.
Moreover, the bill is out of balance; it asks for sacrifice from those least able to afford it and most in need of government services. Of the $50 billion-plus in scheduled "savings," most of the real cuts come out of programs for the poor: $11.9 billion from Medicaid and children's health insurance; $4.9 billion from child support enforcement; and more than $800 million from food stamps. An additional $14.3 billion comes from student loans; some of that is overdue cuts in subsidies to lenders, but more than half involves imposing higher interest rates and fees on students themselves.
By contrast, farm subsidy programs take a hit of just $1 billion over five years, out of a total $100 billion in farm payments. The rest of the projected savings don't come from cuts at all but from revenue that's supposed to be generated by auctioning off parts of the broadcast spectrum ($8.7 billion), from requiring employers to pay higher pension premiums ($6.2 billion) and from repealing an illegal trade subsidy ($3.2 billion).
Conservative Republicans are right that it's important to get entitlement spending under control. They'd have a lot more credibility, though, if their willingness to require sacrifice applied to those at the top of the income ladder as well as at the bottom.
Once the House votes on the spending plan, it expects to take up a $57 billion tax bill that would extend for two years the cuts in capital gains and dividend taxes; more than half the benefits of that change would flow to those making more than $1 million annually. And no one even seems to be considering canceling two upper-income tax breaks that haven't even gone into effect yet. Again, more than half of these tax benefits will go to households with annual incomes over $1 million.
Something is terribly wrong with these priorities. Moderate Republicans need to keep that in mind as the leadership presses them to back down.