The Washington Post

In budget debates, GOP runs afoul of fairness


One of the more comical features of the budget debate is to watch the ways in which Republicans refuse to engage on the issue of economic fairness.

When pressed, they deny, dissemble and throw out poll-tested phrases such as “class warfare” and “opportunity society.” And if that doesn’t work, they begin to spin an elaborate fiction about the absolutely devastating impact that any tax increase will have on international competitiveness and job creation, as if that settles the issue completely.

Steven Pearlstein is a business and economics columnist who writes about local, national and international topics. View Archive

Is it fair that the market economy has directed virtually all of the benefits of economic growth to the top 10 percent of households? No answer.

Given this increasingly unequal distribution of incomes, isn’t there room to make the tax code slightly more progressive? No answer.

Given that people with low incomes rely disproportionately on government services and transfer programs, wouldn’t a deficit reduction plan based solely on domestic spending cuts require more sacrifice from the poor than the rich? And why isn’t that as much class warfare as raising taxes on millionaires? Again, no answers.

Thursday morning, before a friendly crowd on Capitol Hill, I listened as Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), chairman of the House Budget Committee, his voice dripping with moral indignation, declared that by bringing up the issue of fairness in his budget speech this week, President Obama had stooped to “political demagoguery.”

Political demagoguery? In Washington? We’re shocked, shocked. Certainly we haven’t heard any demagoguery from Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) or Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) or Ryan himself? Of course not. The budget crisis is much too serious for that.

News flash for Ryan: In deciding what to spend and whom to tax, lawmakers’ fights over budgets are always fights about values and priorities in which fairness has as rightful a place as fiscal rectitude and economic efficiency.

If it’s legitimate to decry the immorality of leaving our grandchildren a legacy of crushing debt, which Ryan and the Republicans do ad nauseam, then it is no less legitimate to talk about the immorality of reducing deficits by cutting nutritional support for pregnant women and infants rather than raising taxes on millionaires.

Ryan and his Republican crew use a lot of other talking points to deflect the fairness debate.

One is that raising taxes on upper-income taxpayers will kill small-business job creation. These are the facts: Most upper-income taxpayers aren’t small-business owners. Most small-business owners aren’t creating jobs, and those who are tend to have enough cash on hand so that having their taxes raised slightly won’t deter them from hiring workers or making investments if they think they can make money doing so. This nonsense about taxes and small-business job creation is the new “voodoo” economics, the old voodoo (about tax cuts paying for themselves) having been thoroughly discredited.

Another Ryan fantasy is that he has suddenly discovered the secret for dramatically slowing the growth in Medicare spending: giving seniors what amounts to a fixed sum of money and letting them choose from among competing private insurance plans, just the way congressmen and federal employees do. Funny thing about that. Turns out there is already such a competitive option, Medicare Advantage, and the overwhelming evidence is that it has done little to slow the growth of spending per beneficiary (although it has been a boon to insurance company profits). Ditto for the federal employee health plan. You can look it up.

One of the newest Republican canards is that their budget will “strengthen the social safety net, not turn it into a hammock.” Citing the success of Bill Clinton’s welfare reform, the GOP’s aim is to break the culture of dependency that prevents the poor from pulling themselves up by their bootstraps and taking responsibility for their own lives. One can only conclude there must be a secret, unpublished study hidden in the vault of the House Budget Committee that shows conclusively that if you eliminate rent subsidies, Head Start, food stamps, unemployment insurance, day-care assistance and job-training programs and just give poor people a voucher to the nearest community college, poverty in America will be a thing of the past. Otherwise, this hammock thing sounds like a convenient rationalization.

“We don’t want this to be a food stamp nation; we want it to be a paycheck nation,” Ryan said, demonstrating a bit of demagoguery of his own.

I don’t know about you, but I’m having trouble deciding whether this neverending budget saga should be filed under comedy, tragedy or farce. It’s looking less and less, however, like Paul Ryan will emerge as the hero.



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