Fiscal Responsibility Check

Here’s a litmus test for whether someone is serious about balancing the budget. If they are waging war on small budget items that are not popular, they’re not serious. If everything is on the table, they are.

For example, here is Alan Simpson talking about cutting entitlements and defense spending. Alan Simpson is serious about the debt, as attested by the ambitious Simpson-Bowles plan. Here is Reason Magazine, who put everything on the table. They’re serious. Paul Ryan is holding true to his roadmap. He’s serious.

And Obama? Well Obama punted debt in his ridiculous State of the Union address. His OMB is publishing ridiculous op-eds, crowing about cutting less than a billion in spending. And he and his minions are running around promising $53 billion in high-speed rail spending that will, hopefully, never happen with a Republican Congress (although despair springs eternal). Cato brilliantly compared Joe Biden to Lyle Langley of Marge vs. the Monorail when it comes to flogging this ridiculous boondoggle.

And the Republicans? Meh. We’ll see if this $74 billion cut in spending for 2011 materializes. What really concerns me is that are currently burning their political capital to attack pet peeves that don’t cost that much. They got burned recently for trying to cut abortion funding by redefining rape. Now they are trying to cut family planning funds — again under the abortion aegis. The latter attempt may be the stupidest excuse for a budget cut in history. The vast majority of conservatives think that keeping poor people from unwanted pregnancies is a good thing. And the savings would be very small ($327 million). Those cuts aren’t being proposed because they’ll save us money — they’re being proposed to placate the anti-abortion part of the party.

The GOP is also trying to placate the anti-AGWers by cutting off funds for climate research. Because the best way to deal with or disprove global warming hysteria, apparently, is to stop doing research on it.

They are also proposing cutting NPR and PBS off. While I support that — if nothing else it would infuriate the smug liberals posting in my facebook feed about Republicans “hating facts” — the savings are small and the backlash would be strong.

And that brings met to the critical point. Some or all of the above cuts could be justified. The problem is that the Republicans have a limited amount of political capital to spend. They have to target their budget cuts were they will make the most difference. Cutting the above could produce a knock-down drag-out budget battle that would save … a few billion. At most. I would much rather them burn that capital to attack, say, farm and ethanol subsidies, which are ten times as big as all the Republican pet peeves put together.

The Republicans need to make up their mind. Do they want to cause a furor by cutting their pet hatreds — climate research, abortion, birth control and PBS — and save a few billion? Or do they want to cause a furor by tackling the really big problems — entitlements, defense and corporate welfare — and save trillions? My fear is that they still think the former option is the best one. Granted, the above are mostly small parts of a larger budget effort. The attention to them is the classic “stop $74 billion in budget cuts by whining about 1% of it” tactic. But if the GOP is already foundering in the political shoals, we’re in trouble.