The big bud­get mum­ble: GOP has no plan for cuts

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the on­go­ing bat­tle of the bud­get, Pres­i­dent Barack Obama has done some­thing very cruel. Declar­ing that this time he won’t ne­go­ti­ate with him­self, he has re­fused to lay out a pro­posal re­flect­ing what he thinks Repub­li­cans want. In­stead, he has de­manded that Repub­li­cans them­selves say, ex­plic­itly, what they want. And guess what: They can’t or won’t do it.

No, really. While there has been a lot of blus­ter from the GOP about how we should re­duce the deficit with spend­ing cuts, not tax in­creases, no lead­ing fig­ures on the Repub­li­can side have been able or will­ing to spec­ify what, ex­actly, they want to cut.

And there’s a rea­son for this ret­i­cence. The fact is that Repub­li­can pos­tur­ing on the deficit has al­ways been a con game, a play on the in­nu­mer­acy of vot­ers and re­porters. Now Obama has de­manded that the GOP put up or shut up — and the re­sponse is an ag­grieved mum­ble.

Here’s where we are right now: As his open­ing bid in ne­go­ti­a­tions, Obama has pro­posed rais­ing about $1.6 tril­lion in ad­di­tional rev­enue over the next decade, with the ma­jor­ity coming from let­ting the high-end Bush tax cuts ex­pire and the rest from mea­sures to limit tax de­duc­tions. He would also cut spend­ing by about $400 bil­lion, through such mea­sures as giv­ing Medi­care the abil­ity to bargain for lower drug prices.

Repub­li­cans have howled in out­rage. Sen. Or­rin Hatch, de­liv­er­ing the GOP re­ply to the pres­i­dent’s weekly ad­dress, de­nounced the of­fer as a case of “bait and switch,” bear­ing no re­la­tion­ship to what Obama ran on in the elec­tion. In fact, how­ever, the of­fer is more or less the same as Obama’s orig­i­nal 2013 bud­get pro­posal and also closely tracks his cam­paign lit­er­a­ture.

So what are Repub­li­cans of­fer­ing as an alternative? They say they want to rely mainly on spend­ing cuts in­stead. Which spend­ing cuts? Ah, that’s a mys­tery. In fact, un­til late last week, as far as I can tell, no lead­ing Repub­li­can had been will­ing to say any­thing spe­cific at all about how spend­ing should be cut.

The veil lifted a bit when Sen. Mitch McCon­nell, in an in­ter­view with the Wall Street Jour­nal, fi­nally men­tioned a few things — rais­ing the Medi­care el­i­gi­bil­ity age, in­creas­ing Medi­care pre­mi­ums for high-in­come ben­e­fi­cia­ries and chang­ing the in­fla­tion ad­just­ment for So­cial Se­cu­rity. But it’s not clear whether th­ese rep­re­sent an of­fi­cial ne­go­ti­at­ing po­si­tion — and in any case, the arith­metic just doesn’t work.

Scot Le­high

Paul Krug­man

Dana Milbank

Mau­reen Dowd

Start with rais­ing the Medi­care age. This is, as I’ve ar­gued in the past, a ter­ri­ble pol­icy idea. But even aside from that, it’s just not a big money saver, largely be­cause 65- and 66-year-olds have much lower health costs than the av­er­age Medi­care re­cip­i­ent. When the Con­gres­sional Bud­get Of­fice an­a­lyzed the likely ef­fects of a rise in the el­i­gi­bil­ity age, it found that it would save only $113 bil­lion over the next decade and have lit­tle ef­fect on the longer-run tra­jec­tory of Medi­care costs.

In­creas­ing pre­mi­ums for the af­flu­ent would yield even less; a 2010 study by the bud­get of­fice put the 10-year sav­ings at only about $20 bil­lion.

Chang­ing the in­fla­tion ad­just­ment for So­cial Se­cu­rity would save a bit more — by my es­ti­mate, about $185 bil­lion over the next decade. But put it all to­gether, and the things McCon­nell was talk­ing about would amount to only a bit over $300 bil­lion in bud­get sav­ings — a fifth of what Obama pro­poses in rev­enue gains.

The point is that when you put Repub­li­cans on the spot and de­mand specifics about how they’re go­ing to make good on their pos­tur­ing about spend­ing and deficits, they come up empty. There’s no there there.

Repub­li­cans claim to be for much smaller government, but as a po­lit­i­cal mat­ter they have al­ways at­tacked government spend­ing in the ab­stract, never coming clean with vot­ers about the re­al­ity that big cuts in government spend­ing can hap­pen only if we sharply cur­tail very pop­u­lar pro­grams. In fact, less than a month ago the Rom­ney/ Ryan cam­paign was at­tack­ing Obama for, yes, cut­ting Medi­care.

Now Repub­li­cans find them­selves boxed in. With taxes sched­uled to rise on Jan. 1 in the ab­sence of an agree­ment, they can’t play their usual game of just say­ing no to tax in­creases and pre­tend­ing that they have a deficit re­duc­tion plan. And the pres­i­dent, by re­fus­ing to help them out by propos­ing GOP-friendly spend­ing cuts, has de­prived them of po­lit­i­cal cover. If Repub­li­cans really want to slash pop­u­lar pro­grams, they will have to pro­pose those cuts them­selves.

So while the fis­cal cliff — still a bad name for the loom­ing aus­ter­ity bomb, but I guess we’re stuck with it — is a bad thing from an eco­nomic point of view, it has had at least one salu­tary po­lit­i­cal ef­fect. For it has fi­nally laid bare the con that has al­ways been at the core of the GOP’s po­lit­i­cal strat­egy.

Gail Collins

John Young

Leonard Pitts

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