POLITICS
06/02/2011 06:54 pm ET | Updated Jun 05, 2011

Boehner-Backing Economists Have Deep Republican Ties

WASHINGTON -- Whenever House Republicans are about to vote on bills that could affect the economy, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) trots out a list of economists supporting the GOP's position -- most recently, in favor of tying spending cuts to raising the debt ceiling. A close look at these economists, however, reveals many of them to be anything but impartial arbiters.

Some of these economists have worked for Republican politicians or run for office as Republicans. Many have contributed generously to GOP political campaigns. And many more have ties to right-wing organizations that frequently serve as holding tanks for conservative experts awaiting a Republican White House.

"I find it very unsettling -- the whole idea that the profession can be politicized and used for political purposes," said Isabel Sawhill, an economist and senior fellow with the left-of-center Brookings Institution. "So I don't like this at all."

The blogosphere is currently alight with surprise and outrage over unsavory remarks by some of the economists who signed the debt ceiling letter Boehner released Wednesday. But the speaker has turned to many of these experts before.

In fact, many of the economists on the list are effectively robo-signers for GOP economic policy. A full 89 of the 150 economists who signed Boehner's latest letter also put their names on a February statement that claimed government spending cuts would boost the economy.

One of those signers, King Banian, isn't merely connected to Republican politicians -- he actually is a Republican politician. Banian is currently serving in the Minnesota State House of Representatives.

Others have more indirect partisan ties. Of the 150 economists who signed the February statement of support, 92 signed at least three other letters for Boehner on economic policy since 2009. Eight ran for public office as a Republican. Twenty-six worked for a Republican administration or campaign. And 36 gave money to Republican campaigns in the 2008 and 2010 elections -- a total of $70,500, according to Federal Election Commission filings and data from the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

Some of the economists are explicitly conservative professionals. Fifty-one signers of Boehner's February letter work for a research or advocacy group involved in the Atlas Network, a self-described "global network of more than 400 free-market organizations in over 80 countries," which trains right-wing think tank managers and experts.

Boehner's office did not immediately respond to a call for comment.

Several of the economists who signed the February letter told HuffPost there was nothing improper about their connections to the Republican Party. They said it was only natural for conservative thinkers to support a political party that endorses their views. And economists of all ideological orientations often work as advisers or officials for both Republican and Democratic administrations.

"I'm an economist, not a political scientist, so my reason for signing the letter had nothing to do with politics and everything to do with economics," Duquesne University economist Antony Davies told HuffPost. Davies has signed six letters for Boehner since 2009.

The number of signatures on Boehner's letters creates the impression that there is widespread intellectual agreement over the economic facts underlying political disputes. But there are 13,250 economists and 13,020 post-secondary economics teachers that were working in the field, according to a recently published survey by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The views expressed by the 150 economists who sided with Boehner in February are only the views of a specific ideological sect -- and one with very little credibility within the economics field more generally.

That letter urged President Barack Obama and Congress to cut spending in order to create jobs. "For the sake of millions of Americans who remain out of work... we respectfully urge that the leaders of both parties take action immediately to eliminate unnecessary federal spending," the letter reads.

Boehner sent along the economists' message with a note to Obama. "I have attached to this letter a statement signed by 150 American economists who... agree that reducing government spending immediately is necessary to begin to create a more favorable environment for private-sector job creation in the United States," the speaker wrote.

The idea that immediate spending cuts will create jobs, however, is not widely shared in the economics profession.

"I think it's an extremely controversial statement," Sawhill told HuffPost. "It's just silly. And I can't imagine any self-respecting professional economist arguing that spending cuts now are going to create jobs."

In his most recent economists' letter, Boehner's experts say it is imperative that spending cuts be attached to any bill that raises the debt ceiling.

"An increase in the national debt limit that is not accompanied by significant spending cuts and budget reforms to address our government’s spending addiction will harm private-sector job creation in America," the letter reads.

The letter is concerned with political negotiating strategy, rather than the science of economics, says Sawhill. "It's not an economic issue, it doesn't require any economic expertise to say that," she said. "The fact that you have a Ph.D. in economics gives you no greater wisdom than anyone else to pontificate about whether we need spending cuts tied to a debt ceiling increase."

To be fair, Democrats have also sent around letters from economists to lend intellectual credibility to their policy positions in the past. But solicited statements of support are typically few and far between and focused on policies with major economic implications like the health care reform bill last year.

At other times, progressive economists have published open letters to Congress or appealed directly to the public while backing Democratic Party policy priorities. In 2003, 450 economists signed a letter voicing opposition to the Bush tax cuts, and published a full-page ad in the New York Times.

Boehner has been circulating economist letters concerning much less profound issues. The debt ceiling, for instance, would only seriously impact the economy if the U.S. was forced to default on its debt by politicians afraid of voting to raise it before an election. The issue has not previously been the subject of political friction: Congress raised the debt ceiling several times during the Bush administration.

HuffPost is currently researching the economists who signed onto Boehner's latest letter. An update will be provided shortly.

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