There’s a picture of House Speaker John Boehner, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, and Whip Kevin McCarthy that ran in the papers after their White House budget luncheon. They’re standing behind microphones. Eyes glinting. Jaws set. Confident, with maybe just a hint of pride.
And why not? Working together, they've come up with something anyone would be proud of: a Ho Ho.
You know the Hostess Ho Ho. It beckons to you from the snack aisle at your local 7/11. By all appearances, it's some kind of snacking miracle. Chocolate. Cake. Creamy filling. It’s the founding fathers of desert-y goodness all wrapped up into one marvelous package.
Or is it? Turn the package over. There, in the small print... What’s Sodium Stearate? Monocalcium Phosphate? 13 grams of fat. Et tu, Ho Ho? You have betrayed me. [See a roundup of Republican political cartoons.]
That’s the House Republican spending proposal. Not the stopgap measure, the $61 billion. Its Heaven-knows-what nastiness wrapped up in tasty, distracting rhetoric. I call it junk food politics. Here’s why:
To begin with, the proposal doesn’t do anything meaningful to cut spending or reduce the deficit. It won’t put us on the course to a balanced budget: Cutting $61 billion this year does little to dent an expected $1.6 trillion deficit. It won’t even do much to close the budget hole created by the tax cuts that were extended in December—those increased the deficit by $801 billion, or around $740 billion more than the proposed cuts will save. And it doesn’t touch the prime drivers of the deficit: no cuts to Social Security or Medicare or Medicaid. Defense spending actually goes up. All that Republican talk about getting the budget back in balance? So far, it’s nonsense. [Check out a roundup of cartoons on the budget and deficit.]
What are Republicans really up to? Look at the actual cuts. $752 million cut from nutritional programs for children and pregnant women. $1 billion cut from Head Start programs. Almost $6 billion cut from Pell Grants. Those cuts won’t help balance the budget, but they will hobble programs Republicans have been trying to kill for years.
In the past, taking on something like Head Start carried political risks. On the one hand, it gave Republicans the opportunity to cut something that doesn’t benefit the people who typically vote Republican. No downside there. But on the other hand, no one wants to say they’re against helping poor kids go to kindergarten.
Republicans hope today is different. They, like just about everyone else, have read the public mood. They see an electorate simmering with an almost unprecedented level of anger at government. They understand that if ever people are going to let you cut government programs first and ask questions later, it’s now.
The challenge for Republicans moving forward: Where’s the tipping point? You can see the Republican caucus grappling with that very question. Head Start, special education, Pell Grants—ok, those programs service relatively small, less vocal constituencies; in this environment, maybe they can be cut without too much trouble. Social security? Whoa. Not yet. [Read more about the deficit and national debt.]
We should have a robust debate about how tax dollars are spent in this country. We earn the money. We should have the final say about how the government spends it. If Republicans think we shouldn’t fund Head Start, it is perfectly valid for them to say, “We shouldn’t fund Head Start.”
But they’re not saying it. Instead, they’re gambling that as long as they keep the public’s attention focused on cuts writ large, rather than the specifics of what they are cutting, they can get away with a lot of cuts that they might not otherwise be able to make.
They may be right. There’s a reason the picture on a Ho Hos package isn't a bunch of lard. Or a clogged artery. You wouldn’t eat it if you knew what was in it. And that chocolate sure does make the Polysorbate 80 go down easier.
But here’s the thing about junk food, whether it’s politics or a snack cake: You can only eat so much of it before it makes you sick.