Americans who want less government are the big losers in the debt deal. Republicans’ fearful leaders didn’t merely acquiesce to a phony deal. They also helped enshrine Obama-level spending and deficits, put off meaningful entitlement reform and gave the biggest spender ever to enter the Oval Office a solid platform for reelection.
The deal relies on some of the oldest tricks in the Washington.
First, the cuts in the supposedly $2.4 trillion deal are heavily back-ended over a 10-year period. Previous cuts of this style were enacted in law during the Reagan and Clinton administrations. When the out years finally arrived, the promised cuts were easily circumvented and ignored.
The only reductions that matter in Washington are ones that reform or eliminate programs, or which are written into the next year's annual budget. But this deal eliminates no program and the cuts that are envisioned for Fiscal Year 2012, which begins October 1st, appear tiny when compared with the overall budget, which is nearing $4 trillion dollars.
Second, the cuts, such as they are, are reductions to projected future spending increases. This is contrary to how every family and reputable business does budgeting. For them, a cut means spending less in the future than you have in the past. For Washington, a cut is when you spend slightly less than your wildest spending dreams for the future.
Let me put it another way: It would be as if you were deeply indebted and decided to buy a Ferrari for $100,000, but then reconsidered and decided to buy a Ford for $25,000. In Washington, they would say you “saved” $75,000 and everyone would pat each other on the back. Normal people would say you still spent $25,000 you didn’t have and put yourself further in the hole. The debt deal puts America further in the hole.
Third, the deal’s savings are said to be mandatory based on certain "triggers." We’ve seen this movie before, and it doesn’t end well. In 1985, when Americans began to be concerned with deficits a fraction of today’s size, Congress passed the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Balanced Budget Act. It was supposed to bring about automatic cuts to spending within five years if Congress didn’t make cuts on its own. When it came time for the cuts to be triggered, a simple legislative sleight of hand in 1990 eviscerated the law.
Fourth, the deal doesn’t merely delay real reform—it makes it harder. Republican leaders bargained away a hurdle requirement that the Balanced Budget Amendment (BBA) be passed out of the Congress and sent to the states for ratification. This had been the one real deficit reform, which was forced on the leadership by conservatives in the House.
The leadership wasted little time in bargaining it away. The BBA now must merely be voted upon in each house—eventually. With no real desire to see Washington live within its means, Democrats can orchestrate this to fall a vote or two short from the two-thirds portion necessary in each chamber. Democrats facing competitive races can piously vote for the BBA, with retiring Democrats and those in safe seats ensuring a close but certain death. Republican leaders must know this, but themselves never saw eye-to-eye with the 70+ percent of Americans whom polls show support the BBA. Realistically, that means another 5-10 years before the matter can be addressed again.
From the beginning of this “crisis,” Republican leaders have been exceedingly bad at strategy and communications. They instigated the confrontation by demanding concessions for a debt-limit increase. They were right to do so given the dangerous explosion in the size of government and national debt.
But they never appeared to have a plan to shape the debate, present a unified front to Democrats, or even proffer any of the major reforms contained in the Ryan Plan.
Much of the establishment Republican commentariat cheered along their mediocrity. The theory seemed to go that Obama will inevitably lose reelection next year, so let’s not create extra controversy or provide an avenue for Democrats’ demagoguery (which incidentally is inevitable).
But Republicans just handed President Obama a major platform on which to seek reelection. He can claim falsely that he brought together both parties to make “tough choices” and achieve the first step in major deficit reform—all the while enshrining his new normal of trillion-dollar deficits and ever-expanding government.
Meanwhile, Americans who want a smaller government that lives within its means may wonder, once again, what the Republican Party is doing for them—especially at times when it matters most.
Christian Whiton was an official in the George W. Bush administration and is a principal at DC International Advisory. He writes frequently for Fox News Opinion. Follow him on Twitter @WhitonDCIA.
Christian Whiton is the president of the Hamilton Foundation. He was a State Department senior advisor in the George W. Bush administration and a policy advisor on the Giuliani and Gingrich presidential campaigns. He is author of “Smart Power: Between Diplomacy and War” (Potomac Books 2013).