Tea and No Sympathy: What's Wrong with the House Budget Bill that Will Be Voted on This Week

The House Republican budget that was released late in the day on Friday offers a master class in how to use legitimate public concern about the deficit to cloak an ideological crusade that runs counter to the public interest.  The Tea Party forced the Republican leadership to rewrite their already disruptive budget so that it could remake the nation in the Tea Party’s image.  When the House debates the Republican spending proposal this week, the American people will have a chance to see just what a Tea Party nation would look like, and they’re not going to like that picture.

There are three primary problems with what the Republican leadership has put forward as a budget—which technically is a Continuing Resolution to fund the government for the remaining seven months of the current fiscal year.  First, its very premise—that we need to cut $100 billion from one small segment of the budget right now—is faulty and dangerous.  Second, stuck into the budget proposal are significant changes in policy, including some that overturn court decisions.  And third, the budget cuts target important programs that benefit the public. 

Let’s start with the $100 billion cut.  There’s nothing magical about that number, and it’s not derived from economics.  It’s simply a nice round number that was settled on as part of a political pledge the Republicans made in the 2010 campaign.  We shouldn’t be setting fiscal policy on the basis of a number that was calculated solely to sound big to distracted voters.  To make matters worse, much worse, most of the budget is off the table in figuring out where to find the $100 billion.  In the budget proposal, defense spending was barely touched, entitlement programs were off the table, but most indefensibly, the entire tax system, with all its policy provisions and industrial subsidies, was not open for review.  Is that because of economics?  No, of course not.  It’s a political choice designed to force cuts in beneficial programs the Tea Party and its corporate allies don’t like. 

Regardless of all that, Republican leaders say we have to $100 billion right now, arguing that it’s just like a family that is over-spending its budget.  Of course, governments are not supposed to act exactly like families, or there would never be a way out of a recession.  But let’s take up the analogy.  What the U.S. needs to do is get back on a sustainable spending path over several years, not throttle back spending when we’re recovering from a deep recession.  The true family analogy is like this:  Let’s say you had a two-year old and you realized you needed to start saving money for his or her college education.  You’d come up with a plan to gradually save that money (and maybe to increase your earnings) in a way that recognized what your family’s real needs and income would be over the next 20 years.  It would be extremely unwise to cut all of your spending immediately, threatening your ability to pay for your kid’s milk, doctors appointments, etc.  But that’s the way the Republican budget chooses to treat a long-term problem. 

And by the way, if you want to get a sense of how slippery the Republican leadership has been talking about this budget, just look at how they’ve tried to confuse their own supporters about what it contains.  The campaign pledge pretty clearly talked about “at least $100 billion” in actual spending.  The $100 billion they’re talking about now is measured as a cut from President Obama’s proposed budget that was never enacted.  In other words, they’re taking credit for cutting dollars that have never been approved to begin with.  This followed an earlier attempt to argue that about $40 billion in cuts were the same as $100 billion anyway because the fiscal year was almost half over.  The leadership did this because even they understood how hard it would be to find defensible cuts to meet what had been their stated goal.  But the Tea Party crowd pushed them closer to sticking to their commitment even if that meant sticking it to the public.  But this numbers game has all been obscured by fancy political footwork; the Republican leadership doesn’t want to draw attention to how difficult it actually is to find cuts that won’t erode programs the public wants.

Now, NRDC isn’t in business to weigh in on general budget issues.  But the faulty justifications about the $100 billion cut are what they then use to explain cuts to environmental and energy programs.  But even if one accepted the Republican premise, it would still be hard to defend much of what’s in this budget.

That’s because the budget bill contains policy provisions that have nothing much to do with cutting the deficit.  The Tea Party is just using the budget bill as a convenient vehicle to push these items through the House.  This is exactly what they said they wouldn’t do in their “Pledge to America.”  There haven’t been hearings this Congress on most of these items.  And several of them would overturn court decisions—decisions where there were more considered judgments about what is required by law. These provisions are the equivalent of earmarksitems that are put in for special interests that are not happy with allowing the law to work for them like it works for everyone else.

     Here are some of the most egregious examples:

  • A provision that stops Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) efforts to apply Clean Water Act protections to many U.S. waterways under threat from pollution.
  • A provision that, in effect, overturns the Supreme Court decision that found that carbon dioxide is a pollutant under the Clean Air Act.
  • A provision that blocks steps to protect the Chinook salmon in the San Francisco Bay-Delta ecosystem from extinction and another blocking a salmon restoration program developed jointly by farmers and environmentalists.
  • A provision that blocks the re-instatement of long-time policy that enables the government to protect areas that could be set aside as wilderness.
  • A provision that overturns a court decision protecting wolves in the Rockies. 

My colleagues have written about the details of these provisions.  But they all add up to using a spending bill to try to drive through significant exemptions from what would otherwise be the law of the land.  And all these changes would have very real impacts—endangering the survival of wolves in the Rockies and fish and the livelihoods of those who depend on them in California, the destruction of more streams and wetlands throughout the country and more climate change.  Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI), the chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, has claimed proudly that climate change policy would be reviewed in keeping with standard House procedures—hearings, votes at subcommittee and full committee, full House debate—an open and considered process as befits a major issue.  But all of that is thrown overboard in this budget where climate policy is reversed by simply throwing one paragraph into a 359-page bill.  And by the way, usually the committee of jurisdiction—that’s Energy and Commerce—has to sign off before such a provision is included in a spending bill.

Not that the rest of the 359 pages make pleasant reading.  The budget cuts are driven as much by ideology as by any other concern, like figuring out which programs are most effective or provide benefit to the public.  A budget is necessarily a political document, not an economic one—cuts are made to programs that the drafters don’t think are a priority.  And the Tea Party crowd that pushed this budget fundamentally questions the value of government safeguards that protect air, water, lands and food.  They also deny the ability of the government to underwrite technological progress that can produce economic growth and jobs, despite contrary experience with everything from airplanes to pharmaceuticals to information technology.  And so they cut EPA, and the Land and Water Conservation Fund that provides money for open spaces, and the Food Safety and Inspection Service, and research programs at the Department of Energy (except not so much for fossil fuels).  The budget would also cut jobs in a time of high unemployment—both directly and immediately by cutting funds for construction of sewers and drinking water systems, and indirectly and over the long-term by removing incentives to create a clean energy economy.  My colleagues have detailed these cuts, which would deny services and protections the public rightly protects simply because the Tea Party assumes that if the government does it, it doesn’t work.

The ideological agenda is nowhere clearer than in the approach to climate programs.  The documents describing the budget have a whole separate section on climate programs to trumpet these cuts.  Most of these programs make little sense to target even if one doesn’t accept the scientific consensus that humans are changing the global climate and could do so significantly.  For one thing, most of the programs have little if anything to do with regulation.  The programs—at EPA, the Department of the Interior and even the Smithsonian—are designed to collect information, conduct research and figure out how to adjust to a changing climate.  They’re designed to enable us to know what we’re talking about when climate issues are debated and to come up with new, better and cheaper ways to handle climate change.

The House is scheduled to debate the budget for three full days this week.  That should be enough time for the media and the American people to begin to understand just what’s at stake.  As even the drafters of the budget acknowledge, real people would feel the effects of what’s been proposed here.  But cutting the deficit doesn’t have to look like this.  The question is whether we will let the Tea Party unnecessarily get the country into this much hot water.