House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's recent assertion that any disaster relief for Hurricane Irene would have to be offset with spending cuts elsewhere sparked a great deal of outrage, especially in the progressive sectors of the blogosphere.
On one level Cantor's position is no surprise. Paying for emergency disaster relief used to be standard operating procedure in Washington, because it would be inconceivable that the federal government would force the states and individuals to shoulder the burden alone. But with the new GOP House majority, Washington has new rules. Now when there's a policy objective that enjoys bipartisan support—avoiding a government shutdown or default, for example, or providing disaster relief—the GOP will use it as a hostage to extract their partisan policy objectives.
More broadly, people look askance at Cantor and the GOP for previously supporting (but not paying for) disaster relief, a pair of foreign wars, an expansion of Medicare, and the Bush tax cuts, and then finding their inner fiscal hawks when a Democrat entered the White House. (Robert's 10th Rule of Politics: A party's dedication to fiscal responsibility is inversely proportional to its political power.)
Of course the GOP still wants to make the Bush tax cuts permanent, at a cost of $4 trillion over 10 years. If pushing budget-busting tax cuts while carrying the banner of fiscal austerity on issues like disaster relief seems like cognitive dissonance, it is. But that's today's GOP.
Take taxes. Last month's Iowa GOP presidential debate provided a defining moment for the party. The assembled would-be nominees were asked if they would accept tax increases if there were $10 in spending cuts for every dollar of new revenues. To a person, they refused. This came days after the conclusion of the debt ceiling crisis, which had been deliberately manufactured by House Republicans, and which had turned on their flat refusal to accept any tax increase. And it came after months of pious declarations that one never, ever, ever raises taxes on a soft economy (the experiences of Presidents Reagan in 1982 and Clinton in 1993 apparently notwithstanding).
And yet the GOP now wants to raise taxes, both in the immediate term and as a broader matter of principle.
They oppose, for example, President Obama's call to prolong the payroll tax cut enacted last year when the (temporary) Bush tax cuts were extended. Ordinarily, American workers pay 6.2 percent of their wages in a tax that funds Social Security, with their employers matching the amount. For 2011, that rate was cut to 4.2 percent. The logic is simple: The poor and working class are most likely to pump extra disposable income back into the economy, making the tax cut a more efficient stimulant than, say, rate cuts for the wealthy. It's as broad-based a tax cut as can be imagined, as it benefits virtually everyone who works, even those who don't earn enough to pay income taxes. So of course Republicans oppose its extension, preferring to allow a broad-based tax hike to go into effect in the new year. "Not all tax relief is created equal," Rep. Jeb Hensarling, the House's fourth-ranking Republican, told the Associated Press, while others cited fiscal concerns. Extending the tax holiday, which cost $67.2 billion this year and a total of $111.7 billion over 10 years, would be fiscally irresponsible while extending the Bush tax cuts is sound policy? Not all tax cuts are created equal indeed.