That loud hissing sound that you now hear is the air that’s leaving the balloon of serious deficit cutting.
During the congressional recess of last week and the one before, many House Republicans faced angry senior citizens at town hall meetings after voting for House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan’s budget plan that would turn Medicare into a voucher, raising out-of-pocket costs for seniors while ending federal guarantees to certain benefits. In response, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Ryan both said yesterday that, for now, House Republicans won’t push for changes in Medicare. Nor, by the way, are House Republicans backing off their steadfast opposition to raising taxes as part of deficit-cutting efforts, as House Speaker John Boehner reminded reporters earlier today.
Guess what? You can’t do serious long-term deficit cutting if you’re going to ignore Medicare, the health care program for seniors that will exploded in size due to soaring health care costs and the retirement of baby boomers, and ignore taxes. That means that, at best, any White House-congressional agreement that emerges from Vice President Biden’s meetings with bipartisan congressional leaders, which began this morning, will provide merely a down payment on deficit cutting – not a comprehensive plan.
Cantor says Republicans remain committed to Ryan’s plan in total, but their tactical retreat over Medicare reminds us that budgeting remains what it has always been – a quintessentially political affair.
That is, House Republicans may be a particularly conservative group – surely more conservative than their Senate counterparts and perhaps more conservative than the House Republican Class of 1995 that arrived after their sweeping victory in the 1994 mid-term elections – but they’re still elected officials. With an eye toward re-election in 2012, these House members won’t ignore the anger of their constituents over threats to basic government programs.
If that means that House Republicans, who had pledged during last year’s elections to restore fiscal responsibility to Washington, now must lower their aspirations about reining in long-term deficits, so be it.
Lawrence J. Haas is former Communications Director to Vice President Gore and, before that, to the White House Office of Management and Budget. He's now a public affairs consultant who writes widely about foreign and domestic affairs, including fiscal policy.
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