Is this the same party that abhors class warfare and wants to show a gentler side of Mitt Romney toward women and Hispanics? Are we talking smart, principled politics or the charge of the light brigade?
The House Budget Committee meets Monday afternoon to put the final touches on the more than $300 billion 10-year package — the opening shot of a fall campaign to preserve defense spending without bowing to Democratic demands for new taxes.
Monthly food stamp benefits would be cut, hitting millions of single-mother households by summer’s end. Unemployed workers would be dropped from the rolls until they spend down their cash savings below $2,000 — one-fifth of Romney’s famous $10,000 bet. Working-class, often Latino, parents would be denied child tax credit refunds if they lack Social Security cards proving they are authorized to work in the U.S.
These are immigrant taxpayers whose average annual wages are $21,240 and generate far more for the Social Security system in payroll taxes than any refunds they receive. Yet their children, many of whom are U.S. citizens, would lose out even as the House channels an almost identical sum, $7.35 billion, into a new tax deduction for 125,000 small-business owners whose income exceeds $1 million.
Because none of these House bills are going anywhere soon in the Democratic Senate, it’s easy enough to dismiss. Much of the press — and even some Republicans — prefer to do so.
But something far bigger is happening here.
There have been ugly moments in the course of committee markups: snide comments about what food stamp recipients buy at the local grocery line, a wild accusation that President Barack Obama’s preventive care fund had been used to spay dogs in Tennessee. But going into November, here too are the seeds of a real national debate about guns, butter, taxes — the math and morals of budget choices when the money’s running out.
“Ignore it at your own peril,” Rep. Rob Andrews (D-N.J.) told POLITICO. “They think it’s not the enemy path. They think that’s the path to victory.”
This moral dimension explains why the Roman Catholic bishops have come off the sidelines with such force in opposition. And what’s to make of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) having voted against some of these same cuts promoted by the party’s other young vice presidential face, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan?
Before a skeptical audience at Georgetown University, Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman, insisted that the moral imperative is on his side, even quoting Pope Benedict XVI to bolster his argument that the debt must be addressed in this generation and not passed on to the future.
By failing to engage more with solutions of their own, Obama and Democrats can blame only themselves for creating this political void. Ryan and other House chairmen see themselves as prudent stewards stepping into the breach — performing their triage but also saving the core assistance for those most in need.
“Government safety-net programs have been stretched to the breaking point,” Ryan said, “Failing the very citizens who need help the most.”
The great catch to this argument — and one that makes this budget round different — is the whole exercise seems less about debt than staving off defense cuts and tax increases in January. And just 24 hours after committees approved the deepest cuts from poverty programs, the full House voted along party lines April 19 to approve nearly $46 billion in new tax cuts.
So is the true moral issue the nation’s debt — or the nature of American government itself?
No one may “get to heaven” by voting to tax others to help the poor, but the recent back and forth over food stamp cuts is telling.
As a young father, Rep. Joe Baca had himself relied on food stamps, and during the House Agriculture Committee debate, the California Democrat emotionally invoked the Gospel of Jesus feeding hundreds from a few fish and loaves of bread. Rather than sympathy, this brought a sharp rebuke from Rep. Steve Southerland (R-Fla.). “Nowhere in Scripture did God give instruction to government over us as the individual,” said the Christian conservative. “Read it, sir. He was speaking to individuals not governments.”
Asked about the exchange by POLITICO, the Georgetown Jesuit scholar Thomas Reese — a critic of the Ryan budget — quickly countered.
“Jesus lived in an occupied country. He wouldn’t talk to that government,” Reese said of the Roman rule then in Jerusalem. “It was very different from an American democracy.”
All this plays out now with remarkable timing. Exactly a year ago this week — having survived a threatened government shutdown — bipartisan talks began at Blair House on May 5 to address the next great cliff hanger, averting default. Three months later, the Budget Control Act emerged, setting targets for close to $1 trillion in savings from discretionary spending and setting in motion additional cuts if Congress failed to reach agreement on entitlements and taxes.
Now so much in 2012 is arguing over what was agreed to then in 2011.
Indeed, the 66 House Republicans who voted “no” last Aug. 1 seem to have more of a lock on Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) than the 174 who said “yes.” And to keep these conservatives in the fold, the speaker has walked away from the August agreements on appropriations targets for the coming fiscal year.
Defense spending goes up — breaking those caps; nondefense funds are cut an additional $27 billion under allocations approved last week. “Blah, blah, blah,” Boehner said dismissively of White House protests. But the speaker has hurt his credibility and risks another shutdown crisis unless he reverses himself again before Oct. 1.
The savings package Monday seeks also to alter the Budget Control Act, this time by disarming automatic cuts threatening the Pentagon in January.
Nearly $110 billion in 2013 spending would be affected by the scheduled automatic cuts — or sequester. Farm subsidies and Medicare account for a portion, but the lion’s share is again appropriations: $43 billion from domestic programs and $55 billion — a 10 percent cut — from defense.
Given the cuts already from nondefense appropriations, the real House focus is on protecting the Pentagon. Measured against the post-sequester path set out last August, there would be a massive 13 percent, $62 billion shift of resources to defense under Ryan’s plan. By comparison, domestic appropriations are only $15.7 billion or 3 percent better off than if the dreaded sequester were to happen.