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Same Old Lines, Just Switching the Parts

March 28th, 2009 . by economistmom

It’s almost like magic (poof!)–how the roles in the debate over the federal budget have been reversed now that the Democrats are in charge, with the Republicans now using the same old talking points that the Democrats used during the Bush Administration. Here are some parts of (Republican) Senator Judd Gregg’s response to today’s Presidential radio address that make me sentimental about my days on the Democratic staff of the House Budget Committee…

First, there’s the old “compare this president’s debt to the debt of all previous presidents” strategy:

In the next five years, President Obama’s budget will double the national debt; in the next ten years it will triple the national debt.

To say this another way, if you take all the debt of our country run up by all of our presidents from George Washington through George W. Bush, the total debt over all those 200-plus years since we started as a nation, it is President Obama’s plan to double that debt in just the first five years that he is in office.

(It’s always handy to refer to the nominal dollar value of the debt if you want to make the point that it’s growing by an enormous amount over time.)

Let me here note that in return, the Democrats of the House Budget Committee are bragging about the deficit reduction accomplished in their proposed budget plan in the same manner that the Bush Administration used to brag about their budget (emphasis added):

WASHINGTON – The House Budget Committee today passed by 24 to 15 a budget resolution for Fiscal Year 2010 that embraces President Obama’s goal of cutting the deficit in half by 2013 and funding critical initiatives in health care, energy, and education…

A well-understood, critical component of the above talking point: don’t dare extend the budget window far enough to reveal the deficit coming back up.  Hence the five-year, not ten-year, window adopted by the congressional budget committees–it makes bragging (and “success”) easier.  And to the extent the deficit is easy to cut in half because it starts at an unusually-high level, and to the extent that it will come down mostly due to an economic recovery rather than hard policy choices…well, just try not to mention that.

And now, it’s the Republicans accusing the Obama budget of intergenerational inequity…Boy, does this part of Senator Gregg’s response bring back memories:

[President Obama's budget] will lead to an immense national debt that not only threatens the value of the dollar and puts at risk our ability to borrow money to run the government. But it will also place our children at a huge disadvantage as they inherit this debt which will make their chances of success less than those given to us by our parents. It is not right for one generation to do that to another generation.

But don’t worry too much… the Republicans still hold dear to their hearts this line (again, from Senator Gregg’s response):

[President Obama] also is proposing the largest tax increase in history, much of it aimed at taxing small business people who have been, over the years, the best job creators in our economy.

In fact, I’d like to critique this line of argument that Senator Gregg emphasized several times in his remarks:

[T]he budget of the President spends too much, taxes too much and borrows too much.

It can’t be true that a budget plan could both tax too much and borrow too much.  As I’ve argued before, the problem with the Obama budget is that it both spends a lot and cuts taxes by too much (i.e., taxes too little).  That’s how you get to the borrowing too much part.

5 Responses to “Same Old Lines, Just Switching the Parts”

  1. comment number 1 by: Brooks

    Diane,

    In critiquing Senator Judd’s comment that “[T]he budget of the President spends too much, taxes too much and borrows too much”, you write:

    It can’t be true that a budget plan could both tax too much and borrow too much.

    Your statement and your critique of Judd’s comment seem invalid. Judd’s point can indeed be valid.

    Just to pick some hypothetical numbers for illustration, suppose a president’s budget has $2.5 trillion in spending, $2 trillion in projected revenue, and 0.5 trillion ($500 billion) in projected deficit (i.e., borrowing). If some senator thinks that spending should be $1.5 trillion, revenue $1.3 trillion and borrowing $0.2 trillion ($200 billion), he could say that the president’s budget taxes too much and borrows too much, because both are higher than he would prefer.

    Of course, for a given level of spending, there is a trade-off between taxation and borrowing (lowering one requires raising the other), and thus if one does not believe that spending should be lower, he cannot simultaneously complain about both taxes and borrowing being too high, since together they amount to the funding required for that level of spending, and at most he can consider only one of them too high. But if that one says (as Gregg does in that quote) that spending is also too high, he can certainly also say that BOTH taxes AND borrowing are too high, as my illustration shows.

  2. comment number 2 by: economistmom

    Brooks: Indeed, you are right. In my own mind I was holding the level of spending constant, perhaps reflecting my inherent bias in favor of much of the President’s proposed spending, but dismayed about the lack of courage in paying for it (with higher taxes). If the higher spending is justified in the short term and wise for the longer term, the policy choice comes down to how are we going to pay for it–with higher taxes or higher debt? Because I do see that as the fundamental tradeoff here, I can’t see how Republicans can complain about the Obama budget in terms of both higher taxes (which they’re NOT anyway) AND higher debt.

  3. comment number 3 by: Brooks

    Re: “Same Old Lines, Just Switching the Parts”, as I always say, partisans on both sides constantly accuse each other of hypocrisy, and they are both correct.

  4. comment number 4 by: emerich

    Your point that the Democracts made similar charges to those now being made by Republicans may be true but irrelevant to the truth or falsity of the charges. Are two trillion dollar deficits OK now because bush ran $400 billion deficits, as you seem to be implying? Obviously a non-sequitor. You’re right though that both sides are correct in accusing the other of hypocrisy, but their hypocrisies are not parallel. The Republicans were hypocrites because they ran deficits in violation of their stated principles of fiscal responsibility. The Democrats are hypocrites by pretending that deficit spending violated their principles.

  5. comment number 5 by: Brooks

    I kinda think my line that “partisans on both sides constantly accuse each other of hypocrisy, and they are both correct” is mildly witty, but nothing beats Jon Stewart’s presentations of this dynamic, like this one just the other day http://www.thedailyshow.com/video/index.jhtml?videoId=222775&title=the-ever-spending-story