When seeking to make sense of what goes on in Washington, it’s usually best to consult a convicted felon. And I don’t know of anybody who offered keener insight into the weekend debt-ceiling deal between President Obama and congressional leaders than Richard Nixon’s felonious attorney general John N. Mitchell, notwithstanding the fact that he’s been dead 22 years.
“Watch what we do, not what we say,” Mitchell told reporters as he took office. It was good advice then, and it’s good advice now.
For all the blather surrounding the deal — “a nearly complete capitulation to the hostage-taking demands of Republican extremists,” wept the New York Times; “a victory for the cause of smaller government,” exulted The Wall Street Journal — it’s really nothing more than Washington business as usual. If the agreement proves anything, it’s that our politicians are more profoundly addicted to their flim-flam numbers and balderdash rhetoric than even the most cynical of us could have imagined.
Spending keeps going up. Debt keeps going up. Taxes almost certainly keep going up. And we get to replay the whole phony melodrama again next fall when one of Washington’s beloved bipartisan commissions reports back that, shockingly, the government is still going broke.
Emblematic of the phoniness of this deal is its centerpiece, the putative $900-plus billion “budget cut.” Appropriately, it seems to have taken its inspiration from a cartoon character — Popeye’s buddy Wimpy, the one who was always saying, “I’ll gladly pay you Friday for a hamburger today.”
Most of the cutting is supposed to be done from budgets over the next 10 years, an empty promise that neither President Obama nor most members of Congress are likely even to be around to break. Details of any actual cuts in the 2012 budget, the only one over which these guys have any authority, were slow to emerge Monday. (As usual, Washington is quick with “frameworks,” slow on specifics.)
But it’s worth remembering that the Republican plan put forth by House Speaker John Boehner, which Congressional Democrats unanimously rejected as apocalyptic, cut just $22 billion from the next budget. That’s out of a budget of $3.8 trillion. “This is pretty much akin to having a $50,000 credit card bill and celebrating because your telephone bill is going down from $40 a month to $30 a month,” as a blogger at MillenialStar.org noted.
The rest of the deal is more of the same. Another $1.5 trillion in cuts is supposed to be delivered next November by that bipartisan congressional commission. If the politicians can’t stomach real cutting now, with the 2012 election still 16 months off, do you think they’ll do it on the eve of the vote?
Instead, we’ll get a batch of bookkeeping trickery like “savings by cutting waste and fraud” (as if those are budget line items that can be abolished by decree) and fond hopes (the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and Libya and Yemen will, maybe, someday, end). Meanwhile, the Bush tax cuts of 2001 will expire — Obama has sworn many times he will not extend them again — and the upper middle class will suddenly find itself considered among “the rich” by the IRS.
Of course, I could be wrong. A flock of political fairies could sprinkle pixie dust over Washington, causing pigs to fly and congressmen to make hard economic choices. Hooray! We get the full $1.5 trillion in cuts. Even under the most optimistic budgeting scenarios, that still leaves us close to $25 trillion in debt. That’s the real truth underneath all the Washington hysterics: Nobody is talking about truly cutting either spending or the deficit, just their rate of growth.
A photo showed a protester wandering the capitol last week carrying a sign that read, I SEE DEBT PEOPLE. The question is whether our politicians ever will.