By Eugene Robinson
The Republicans were doing pretty well for themselves as the Party of No. So why did they decide to rebrand themselves as the Party of Nonsense?
All right, I’m being slightly disingenuous. Inquiring minds demanded to know just what the GOP proposed to do if voters entrusted them with control of one or both houses of Congress. But if the “Pledge to America” unveiled Thursday is the best that House Republicans can come up with, they’d have been better off continuing to froth and foam about “creeping socialism” while stonewalling on specifics.
The problem with the Pledge is that the numbers don’t remotely add up. The document is such a jumble of contradictions that it’s hard to imagine how it could possibly pass muster with anyone who survived eighth-grade arithmetic—unless, perhaps, the Republicans have something in mind that they’re not prepared to talk about quite yet.
The Pledge bills itself as a plan to “create jobs, end economic uncertainty, and make America more competitive.” These sound like worthy initiatives, but the GOP also promises to “stop out-of-control spending and reduce the size of government.” Most economists would contend that right now, given the level of economic distress throughout the nation, those goals are mutually exclusive. No matter, I suppose, since the Pledge wouldn’t really do either.
To create jobs, the Republicans vow to make all of the Bush administration’s tax cuts permanent—as opposed to the Democrats’ position, which is to make the cuts permanent for the middle class but allow taxes to return to Clinton-era levels for households making more than $250,000 a year. The GOP also would give small-business owners a new 20 percent tax deduction on their business income. The Pledge also tosses in the perennial Republican promise to curb “excessive federal regulation.”
But on the spending side, the party would take a number of actions that would immediately destroy jobs. Republicans propose a hiring freeze for federal employees—exempting the defense and security sectors. Since the private sector isn’t hiring, a public-sector job freeze would only ensure that unemployment remains higher than it otherwise would have been. The Pledge also proposes embargoing any funds from last year’s economic stimulus bill that have not already been spent—money that is meant to keep construction workers, teachers, firemen and others on the job.
If Americans who might have been hired by the federal government or paid with stimulus funds are out of work, they won’t have money to spend on goods and services—and businesses, facing lower demand for their goods and services, won’t hire workers or invest in new facilities. Do Republicans actually want to send the economy back into recession, or have they just not read the document issued in their name?
There’s much more. I’m just coming to the most dishonest—or, charitably, most insincere—of the Pledge’s many promises. Republicans claim to want to reduce the “massive” federal deficit. That is, indeed, a noble aim. But the plan is riddled with measures that would make the deficit grow, not shrink.
Perhaps the biggest is not just extending the tax cuts, but making them permanent. Over the next decade, this measure would add an estimated $4 trillion to the deficit. The Republicans’ notion that cutting the federal budget will somehow make up the difference is laughable. The Pledge exempts defense, entitlements and debt service—the biggest components of the federal budget—and focuses on “discretionary” spending, which they would cut by “at least $100 billion in the first year alone.” Yeah, right.
Sucking that much money out of discretionary programs would require draconian cuts in programs, such as education grants, that both red states and blue states have come to depend on. It won’t happen. And even if it did, the impact on the deficit would pale in comparison to that of the tax cuts.
One funny thing: The “Pledge to America” mentions the phrase Social Security just twice in passing. If the GOP were somehow to enact its full plan, one of the only conceivable ways to keep the country out of bankruptcy would be to make radical changes to Social Security—perhaps privatizing the program, which George W. Bush tried and failed to accomplish. Is that what Republicans have in mind?
That would be a question to ask before November. I think more than a few people would love to know the answer.
Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.
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