04/05/2011 05:17 pm ET Updated Jun 05, 2011

Government Shutdown Is a Culture War, Not a Deficit Battle

The Republicans have talked for years, nay decades, about fiscal responsibility and small government, about getting America back to its roots and strict Constitutionalism, about reducing the debt and bolstering individual can-do. Government is the problem, not the solution, right?


Everything the Republicans have done in recent memory cuts in the opposite direction. Our most recent Bush generated a third of the government debt that sits on our books through increased government spending (two wars) and tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. The Bush before him saw a similar growth in government spending, raising the debt-to-GDP ratio by 15%. Even the beloved President Reagan increased the debt-to-GDP by over 20% and created our first prevailing modern deficits. Democrat Bill Clinton was the only modern president that ever zeroed out the deficit and under his watch Secretary of Treasury Robert Rubin was planning to buy back all our government debt making the American bond a memory.

The fact that a large part of the population still believes that Republicans are fiscally conservative is peculiar. I can only attribute this to our populace's general disinterest in politics and our tendency to take people at their word.

Today, we face a government shutdown over the budget debate and in this latest round of political wrangling, Republicans are playing a similar game: arguing one way and legislating another.

This afternoon, Republican House Leader John Boehner responded to President Obama's press conference on the budget debate. The Republicans are calling for bigger "real" cuts, not the smoke-and-mirror trims the President is proposing. Boehner contradicted Obama's statement (made just a few minutes earlier) that the two sides had agreed to a spending cut number: $33 billion.

However, when pressed, Boehner was not willing to commit to a number that the Republicans would accept, saying instead that he would "do his negotiating with the Senate." What Boehner did say, mumbling and quickly at the end of his brief statement, was that the Republicans "would fight for the HR 1 cuts."

Here we get to the heart of the matter: the HR 1 cuts. What exactly are these HR1 cuts? Here's a sampling:

  • Cuts funding to implement the Affordable Care Act (Obama's signature health care reform).
  • Eliminates funding for the Title X program, which for more than 40 years has provided family planning services, breast and cervical cancer screenings, and other preventive health care.
  • Cuts747 million from the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (better known as the WIC program).
  • Cuts more than one billion dollars from the Head Start program and39 million from
  • Cuts funding for Pell grants.
  • Cuts over2 billion from job training programs.

These cuts have a theme. They are all those loosey-goosey lefty programs like Family Planning, Health Care, Women's Rights and those pesky kids that want an education. Also, they also don't amount to that much. Taken altogether the programs listed above come to about $7 billion.

So it's not too much of a surprise that the Republicans later in the day indicated, that they may agree to a $40 billion dollar cut or $7 billion more than the president has proposed. Coincidence?

All of this may give us an indication as to what this budget debate is boiling down to: No, it's not a call for sweeping reforms to entitlement programs or massive cuts to reduce the deficit. The Republicans are fighting over handful of tiny programs -- less than half a percent of the total budget -- that help women and children and poor people and people needing health care or job training or family planning.

This is not about deficit reduction. It's about a culture war against people who believe in family planning and those who don't. Against people who want affordable health care and those who don't. Against those who believe in providing education to the least of us and those who don't. Against people who believe in supporting women's rights and those who don't. This is not about the deficit; it never has been.

Perhaps the Republicans are hoping that we'll all get confused by the release of Republican Senator Paul Ryan's plan today -- which is in fact a bold one. But Senator Ryan's plan is for next year, not this year. So it's peculiar that he's releasing the plan to such fanfare only 48 hours before the Congress needs to vote on this year's appropriations.

Obama's confused too. He said as much in today's press conference: "Right now we've got some business in front of us that needs to be done," Obama said, dismissing the Ryan plan. "We don't have time for games, we don't have time for trying to score political points and maneuvering... Not on this."

So what's left? Right now our government leaders are behind closed doors arguing about that $7 billion. Again, less than one half of one percent of the total budget. Maddeningly, it's not an argument about America's future and how we are going to pay for it. No, it's about taking scholarships away from college kids, shutting down family planning clinics, and reducing food stamps.

What's even sadder is that very few people will notice.