"Give us trillions in cuts in Medicare and Medicaid or we blow up the economy." This was -- stripped of its politician's gloss -- the message that House Speaker John Boehner delivered to Wall Street yesterday, in discussing Republican demands as the price for raising the debt ceiling.
He portrays himself as a reluctant extortionist: "It's true that allowing America to default would be irresponsible." But he told the barons of Wall Street he has no choice. The Tea Party made him do it: "Washington's arrogance has triggered a political rebellion in our country... and it would be more irresponsible to raise the debt ceiling without simultaneously taking dramatic steps to reduce spending and reform the budget process."
Notice the Speaker's phrasing. He curses deficits and debt but he isn't focused on them. He is focused on "our spending addiction." "Everything is on the table," he says, "with the exception of tax hikes."
And even that is a half-truth, since Boehner and his party have also no appetite for real cuts in the defense budget. Boehner isn't pushing to get out of Iraq and Afghanistan and roll back the costly U.S. global police role. In the budget that Boehner pushed through the House, Republicans voted to give the Pentagon back most of the relatively nominal defense cuts that Defense Secretary Gates had projected over the next years. And many harshly censored the president for suggesting that another $400 billion in cuts might be chipped out of the more than $8 trillion the Pentagon will spend over the next 12 years.
So if tax hikes aren't allowed -- even though the wealthiest Americans are now paying a lower effective tax rate than their chauffeurs -- and defense cuts are off the table, how does Boehner propose to get "trillions" in spending cuts? Medicare and Medicaid get the ax. Or as Boehner puts it in politician speak, "Everything on the table" includes "honest conversations about how best to preserve Medicare."
The budget math is inescapable. The federal government, as Paul Krugman puts it, is basically an insurance system for our retirement years that also has an army. About half of the government's spending is in retirement programs -- Social Security, Medicare, much of Medicaid and other insurance programs. Defense is half of the rest. All of the rest of government -- public health, environmental protection, the IRS, the FBI and Justice Department, education, Pell grants, roads, health research, R&D -- consumes the last fourth. When Republicans take taxes and defense off the table, and call for trillions in spending cuts and you have no choice but to go after Medicare, Medicaid and/or Social Security.
Which of course is what they are doing. The House budget cuts nearly $800 billion out of Medicaid over the next five years -- and ends Medicare as we know it.
There is a bitter irony to this. The current deficits stem largely from three sources -- the Bush tax cuts, the two wars that were fought on the tab, and the Great Recession which cratered tax revenues and lifted spending on everything from unemployment to food stamps to the recovery spending. Boehner argues that "adding nearly a trillion to our national debt -- money borrowed mostly from foreign investors -- caused a further erosion of economic confidence in America." But he ignores the trillions added to the debt by the Bush tax cuts, the wars and the Great Recession, focusing only on the Obama recovery spending which made the smallest contribution of all of these to the deficits. And he rules out reversing the top end tax cuts or cutting the military spending to address the deficits that they helped to create. (And if we actually adopt his policies, he's likely to extend the Great Recession as well.)
Boehner argues that adopting his position would show that Washington is "starting to get the message" from the American people. But Boehner isn't hearing what most Americans are saying. Americans are concerned about deficits, and they are certain that government wastes significant portions of their money. They also oppose the billions squandered on subsidies and tax breaks for Big Oil, Big Pharma, Agribusiness and the like -- tax breaks that Republicans defend, arguing that repealing them constitutes a tax increase.
In fact, the vast majority of Americans doesn't agree with Boehner's priorities. The Campaign for America's Future, which I help direct, has started an American Majority campaign to remind the media of this fact. Three quarters oppose cutting Medicare to help balance the budget. Two thirds oppose raising the retirement age. Three fourths oppose cutting state funding for Medicaid. Over 60% favor raising taxes on those making over $250,000 to help reduce the deficit. A growing majority think defense cuts ought to be on the table.
Boehner wants to extort his cuts now -- at a time when the economy is struggling, and the country is suffering from mass unemployment. With interest rates near record lows, the construction industry idle and our infrastructure in deadly state of disrepair, the country would be well advised to use this occasion to invest in rebuilding the country, and put workers back to work.
Instead Boehner offered Wall Streeters a shower of conservative shibboleths, stuck randomly like pieces of lint on a serge suit. "The massive borrowing and spending by the Treasury Department crowded out private investment by American businesses of all sizes," he argued to what must have been a bemused audience well aware that with interest rates low, and business sitting on trillions in capital waiting for demand to pick up, the only "crowding out" comes from ideology displacing reality in Boehner's head.
Boehner argues that business people crave stability. Even the mere threat of tax hikes causes them to retreat from investments they might otherwise make. Regulatory changes are similarly disruptive:
"For job creators, the 'promise' of a large new initiative coming out of Washington is more like a threat. It freezes them. Instead of investing in new employees or new equipment, they make the logical decision to stand pat." Sadly, Boehner didn't explain why the threat to blow up the economy if he can't get trillions in unidentified spending cuts doesn't constitute the "promise" of a large new initiative coming out of Washington.
What happens now? Boehner's position is untenable. He is holding a hostage -- the economy -- that he dare not shoot. He is demanding trillions in cuts from programs that he dare not name. He is looking for a backroom negotiation in which he can get the president to give him cover in enacting cuts that are unpopular to the American people and likely to be ruinous to the economy. If the president falls for it, Republicans make progress in dismantling the Medicare program that they have always opposed, and the president takes the rap for the bad economy.
What's to be done? Jonathan Chait gets it right. The president -- and the country -- would benefit from an open discussion, not a backroom negotiation. The president needs to call Boehner out. What are the trillions in cuts that he wants as the price for letting the economy go free? If he lays them out -- as in passage of the House budget plan that ends Medicare as we know it -- the president can show Americans why they are unacceptable, and use the bully pulpit to take the case to the country. If Boehner isn't prepared to lay out his cuts, call his bluff. Surely he can't long threaten to cripple the economy if he doesn't get cuts that he isn't prepared to define.
One thing Boehner says rings true. Americans are sick of the arrogance in Washington. But it is hard to imagine a more arrogant politician than one threatening to blow up the economy if he doesn't get his way.