How the GOP Has Already Won the Government Shutdown Fight

How to fix the budget deficit without really trying

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Suppose I told you that I knew of a simple way to alleviate the budget deficit problem, and that it would require Congress not to do anything at all. You'd conclude that this was the poor start to a late April Fools' column.

But unhappily the April Fools' joke unfolding in the nation's capital is the fantasy budget and spending debate itself. It's rooted in an unreality that is about to crash into an unyielding real world, possibly in the form of a government shutdown.

[See 10 effects of a government shutdown.]

The Congressional Budget Office, a nonpartisan fiscal scorekeeper, projects the budget deficit will be $1.5 trillion this year, or 9.8 percent of gross domestic product. In order to achieve budget stability and sustainability, according to economists, that figure should be around 3 percent of GDP. But here's the good news: The CBO projects that the deficit will "drop markedly over the next few years as a share of output and average 3.1 percent of GDP from 2014 to 2021." We're saved! And it gets better: "Those projections . . . are based on the assumption that tax and spending policies unfold as specified in current law."

In other words, all Congress has to do is what they seem ideally suited to these days—nothing. Ah, but there's the rub. CBO continues that its projections "understate the budget deficits that would occur if many policies currently in place were continued, rather than allowed to expire as scheduled under current law." Those policies include the Bush tax cuts. They also include annual spending punts that enjoy broad bipartisan support, like preventing the Alternative Minimum Tax's bracket creep from snagging the middle class, and the "doc fix," which pushes back a scheduled cut in Medicare payments.

So the solution isn't so simple. But lawmakers wishing to do more than talk about dealing with the deficit could demand offsets for these policy changes. Instead, we're reminded of the reality that even the toughest self-styled budget hawks--including Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, who describes dealing with the deficit as a "moral imperative" but advocates extending the Bush tax cuts in full in perpetuity at a cost of nearly $4 trillion--are actually strutting budget peacocks more concerned with perception than results, or fiscal results anyway.

[See editorial cartoons about the federal budget and deficit.]

Take, for example, the Republican Study Committee, the hawkiest of the GOP budgetary birds of prey and enforcers of the party's economic dogma. Going by reputation, they should be able to proffer a budget plan to bring the deficit into line. But the Concord Coalition, a group focused on eliminating the deficit, last month used CBO numbers to examine a scenario under which the Study Committee got its tax-and-spending wish list, which includes an extension of the Bush tax cuts, repeal of the Obama healthcare law (which CBO scores as a money-saver, meaning that repeal adds to the deficit), and $2.7 trillion saved in a spending freeze and cuts. The result? "Under this scenario, the resulting deficits would be $2.1 trillion larger over 10 years," according to Concord, which concludes, "A budget that uses honest numbers and reflects Republicans' current policy preferences will result in large continuing deficits." [See a roundup of political cartoons about the GOP.]

But nevertheless, and in the face of six recent years of GOP control over both the White House and Congress, Republicans have won the budget perception battle, and soundly. A poll released last week by Democracy Corps, a group of prominent liberal pollsters including Stan Greenberg and James Carville, found that independent voters are "still hesitant to trust Democrats on spending."

Meanwhile the debate in Washington has focused almost entirely on spending cuts, even though polls show that voters are more concerned about jobs and the economy than the budget and the deficit—and even though most economists agree that the GOP's proposed spending cuts would set back the recovery.