In the GOP's budget, a surplus of spite -- Opinion Focus with Eugene Robinson

Jan 25, 2011

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson discusses his recent columns and the latest news.

Read today's column In the GOP's budget, a surplus of spite in which Gene writes: "Despite what you might have heard, the coming battle on Capitol Hill is not really about "government spending" in the abstract. It's about two radically different visions of how money should be spent. "

Hello, everyone. Welcome to our regular get-together. I guess it's time for our annual SOTU pre-discussion, in which we carefully parse the words and meaning of a speech we haven't yet heard. I'll go out on a limb and predict that the president will end with "God bless the United States of America." Jobs, the economy and the upcoming battle over the budget are sure to be prominent themes; and we know that some of the heroes of Tucson will be guests of the First Lady. I guess the biggest suspense is which D's will sit with which R's in the new, less polarized seating chart. Let's begin.

So far, the Republicans have been suspiciously vague about these spending cuts they would enact, except to cut anything that could remotely be "liberal." When will they actually propose real, tangible spending cuts? Will they be included in a budget, and when they finally do put a budget together, will it be longer than 30 pages and have actual numbers in it?

Very good questions. One Republican who does have a plan, of course, is Paul Ryan, who is delivering the official GOP response. But his colleagues are not rushing to embrace his ideas about Social Security and other entitlements. At some point, the GOP is going to have to get specific.

We cannot continue to spend money we don't have. Why not cut programs like PBS / NPR that both waste money and support the liberal agenda? It won't solve the problem but every cut will help.

I don't buy that "support the liberal agenda" line, but you raise a point that should be valid -- but isn't, in my opinion, given what we're hearing from the GOP. Sure you could cut the relative pittance that goes to public broadcasting. But what about the tens of billions of dollars that go toward agricultural subsidies? Why put off-limits the hundreds of billions that we spend on defense? (And yes, Eric Cantor has indicated that defense may not be off the table, but it 's unclear whether his members agree.)

If Cantor and House Republicans are serious about including defense in their spending cuts, a good place to start is the F-35 fifth-generation, single-seat, single-engine stealth multirole fighter program. Every time Lockheed builds an F-35, a second engine is being built (in case one goes bad or is lost I guess). House Speaker Boehner had a nontrivial role in engineering Congressional approval for the second engine program given that these engines are built near Boehner's Congressional District. The Pentagon wants to stop building second engines ($485 million this year and billions more later) and the Obama Administration prefers using $285 million for overdue National Guard equipment purchases and $200 million to help pay down deficits. If House Republicans want to eliminate superfluous spending, they should target the F-35 second engine program and do away with resulting make-work private sector jobs. Or will Republicans give in to the well-heeled defense lobby consortium of General Electric and Rolls Royce (second engine builders) and opt instead for accepting campaign contributions for their coffers?

Precious few on Capitol Hill have ever met a defense lobbyist they didn't like. (True of many Democrats as well as Republicans.)

Gene, What do you propose Obama does about Lebanon. Hezbollah killed one of the leaders and kicked out the other. They are about to become a fully owned subsidiary of Iran used to launch attacks against Iran's enemies. The responses will no doubt lead to the deaths of the Lebanese people. Its not jobs, but it is somewhere that Obama could make a positive impact overseas.

I'm confident that we'll hear some words about foreign policy tonight but I doubt President Obama has figured out how to fix Lebanon. I'm not sure anyone has.

Gene, it is starting to feel like the Republicans aren't going to get serious about jobs legislation because they realize that anything that creates jobs, costs money. Or is it because they don't have a plan? Maybe it's both...

An interesting question, because it sketches the struggle we're likely to see in the coming weeks. The president will propose programs that he says are necessary to create jobs. The Republicans will paint these programs as "new spending" and oppose them. How will people react? What will be the stronger pull, the promise of jobs or the threat of the deficit?

Do you think the GOP makes the connection that when they talk about the size of government that it means eliminating jobs? Aren't they the party of jobs? What do they suppose that the 30% of Federal workers who they say should be cut go off and do? Or are Federal Government Employees who are axed permanently tainted and should just disappear into the ether?

One of the most unfortunate consequences of this more-fiscally-responsible-than-thou contest we're going to witness is that federal workers are getting thrown under the bus. The GOP may be a bit more cynical than Democrats about this, but only marginally so. (That excoriation does not apply to members of Congress from both parties who happen to represent jurisdictions in the Washington area.) It's easy to make federal employees the whipping-boys and -girls. All that is required is pretending that for a construction worker to be out of a job is a bad thing, but for a federal worker to be out of a job somehow makes no difference. 

Gene, We have a number of third rails which are what are really crushing out budget, and your article conventionally left them out. Pensions are massively underfunded and often give benefits that far exceed all but executive retirement packages. Social Security, while nice was originally set up for the truly old, those who lived longer than the average life expectancy, its nothing close to that anymore. Our defense also costs loads of money and the projects need to be analyzed for effectiveness. The left makes it sound like defense is the only problem and the right keeps blaming public officials. At least the conservatives are calling for cuts across the board. It sounds to me like the left wants to protect all of its pet projects.

If my "the left" you mean me, I didn't call for any pet projects to be protected, I just said the GOP hit list is politically and ideologically selective. The highest-voltage third rail is medical costs; Social Security is relatively easy to fix, to the extent that it's "broken" at all, but Medicare is going to bankrupt the nation. Obama made an attempt on health care. Now, the GOP wants to repeal the reform law -- and increase the deficit.

If the Sec of Defense is advocating cutting $78 billion from the Pentagon, isn't that a no-brainer as a cut? I want all Republican Congressmen to know that the newbies in Congress were put there because of a general frustration with Congress and not with the President. That is where they are miscalculating. If they would work for the people and not their donors, the world would be a better place.

The most interesting struggle on defense costs may be between establishment Republicans and Tea Party Republicans. Members of Congress who are accustomed to the helpful support of defense lobbyists may find that their newly elected colleagues take a more jaundiced view.

I work in the federal government. If a third of my office disappeared efficiency would probably go up. Case in point - I have time to take part in an online chat and nobody even notices. I'm sure not every department is like this and doubtless some are stretched thin, but I guarantee you a thirty percent reduction in budget would not lead to a thirty percent reduction in food safety inspections or air traffic control.

I hope you're right. Now get back to work.

We should all be able to agree that one of the fundamental raison d'etres of government is defense from external threats. If not, go back and read some Hobbes. Having said that, there is noone who doubts that some savings in the DoD budget cannot be realized, your hyperbole notwithstanding. (Don't forget, you thumped some weeks ago that earmark proscription in the Senate Republican caucus was DOA and then had to watch when the vote went just the other way, so you really don't know everything you think is going on.) Same here. The Pentagon budget will see some cuts on programs over the objections of lawmakers from both sides of the aisle with related jobs in their areas, but your basic Americans (you should try to meet some) are fed up with money going year after year to things that simply are not the proper function of a central government. And, yes, I'll put the Corporation for Public Broadcasting there, along with a lot of other things you no doubt like.

Obviously I don't mind it when people disagree with me, but the bit about "your basic Americans (you should try to meet some)" offends me. See, I happen to be a "basic American." So are you. So is Keith Olbermann -- and so is Glenn Beck. We don't come on basic and non-basic varieties. What criteria are you using to define basic-ness, other than agreement with your point of view?

Hi Eugene, interesting read today. My question is pretty straight-forward. Do you really believe that more money always equals better results from agencies like the FDA or the SEC or the FAA? Something that has to be addressed but has yet to be discussed during our nations latest obsession with the debt is government efficiency. What exactly do we want government to do and how do taxpayers get the most out of their money? Budget cuts aren't always bad, are they?

Budget cuts are not always bad, of course. But let's be honest. Many people, given the state of the economy, have heard their bosses exhort them to "do more with less." But no matter how many PowerPoint slides you put up, less almost always equals... less. You decide what you can do without, and you move ahead. Look, I'm under no illusion that the federal agencies are, generally speaking, textbook models of efficiency. But if you have fewer people doing something, then (unless you increase productivity) you're going to do less of it. And you're certainly not going to have the resources to cope with peak demand for whatever it is that you do. So you might, for example, see that a lot of people who work for FEMA don't appear to have much to do. But you want them to be in place, to respond immediately, in the event of a disaster.

Mr. Robinson, I'm trying to figure out why Social Security is such an "emergency" that needs to be addressed right now. The trust fund will have enough money to pay out all benefits for another 25 years, and any issue with the program could easily be fixed by raising the tax cap from its current $106,800. Why has this message been so difficult to convey to the general public (and even some Dems in Congress)?

Beats me. 

Do you see the republicans agreeing to raise the debt limit? Or will they try to shut-down the government..... AGAIN.

The GOP leadership's intention, as stated by Eric Cantor, is to use the debt limit vote as leverage to force the president to agree to spending cuts. At the end of the day, though, it seems to me that they're going to have to vote up or down -- and accept the consequences. No matter how the argument plays out, if Republicans vote no and sent the U.S. government into default, they'll own that vote.

Eugene, it has always been enjoyable and informative to watch you interact with Keith Olbermann on Countdown. What are your thoughts about the end of his tenure at MSNBC?

I'll miss him.

Lotta sacred cows over there on the other side of the fence, Eugene... Check out the electoral map for an answer to this one... How about the $20-$25B a year that big agri-business gets??? No, no... How about the $5-??B that Big Oil gets??? No, no... How about the billions that are being stashed off'shore??? 'Er the multitude of loopholes in the tax codes that are there exclusively for the rich??? I mean, let's get real here... Let's push Eric to live up to his word and put "everything" on the table... Whaddayathink??? Bob

I agree, but honestly I have to wonder whether how much of the Democratic caucus could be held together for a serious examination of corporate welfare. As long as the K Street lobbying machine is integral to the political process, I wonder how much this generosity is going to change.

Anyone who spends at least a few minutes getting to know the US budget will quickly realize the false promises the Republicans are making on deficit reduction. Why is it that this knowledge is not as common among the public as it should be? Debate through editorials does not work since people always associate newspapers with a "liberal" or "conservative" agenda. It seems that, in the current environment, people can say or claim anything and still get away with it. Should there be a better forum for talking heads to debate their points of view so that they can backup their statements? For example, we have reality shows for everything, how about a reality show based on political views!

I love it. But would we opine in front of a panel of judges, like on American Idol? Or get marooned on a desert island and fight it out, like on Survivor? (I know you don't want to see most pundits in the outfits they wear on Dancing with the Stars.)

My time is up for today, folks. Thanks for tuning in, and I'll see you again next week.

In This Chat
Eugene Robinson
Eugene Robinson is an Associate Editor and twice-weekly columnist for The Washington Post. His column appears on Tuesdays and Fridays. In a 25-year career at The Post, Robinson has been city hall reporter, city editor, foreign correspondent in Buenos Aires and London, foreign editor, and assistant managing editor in charge of the paper's award-winning Style section. In 2005, he started writing a column for the Op-Ed page. He is the author of "Coal to Cream: A Black Man's Journey Beyond Color to an Affirmation of Race" (1999) and "Last Dance in Havana" (2004). Robinson is a member of the National Association of Black Journalists and has received numerous journalism awards.
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