Of course, ignoring tedious issues like the disposition of hundreds of billions of dollars in federal spending to largely contentless culture clashes is a long-standing tradition in American politics. But that doesn’t mean it makes sense.
Republicans have been somewhat circumspect about their plan, though it’s not exactly a secret. The four House Republicans seeking the top spot on the Budget Committee favor linking the debt ceiling to cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. “Our primary focus has to be non-discretionary — it has to be about rights,” says Rep. Buddy Carter of Georgia.
“Entitlements” and “non-discretionary” are Congressional talk for programs whose eligibility and benefit rules are set by Congress rather than subject to the annual appropriations process. The largest such program is Social Security, followed by Medicare, followed by Medicaid. A few smaller programs, such as the Affordable Care Act grants, food stamps, and most categories of farm aid and veterans’ benefits, also fall under the nondiscretionary umbrella.
These programs represent the vast majority of federal non-military spending. So if the goal is to reduce inflation by cutting spending — which Republicans keep saying they want to do — then those programs need to be cut.
It’s been a bit difficult to have a frank conversation about these issues, because every time the Republicans hint that this is what they want to do, the Democrats jump up and the GOP gets skittish. It happened in February when the leader of the Senate Republican campaign arm, Rick Scott of Florida, released a plan calling for all federal programs to be halted every five years. It would be the end of federal health and pension programs as we know them, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell quickly distanced himself from the proposal — but released no alternative policy agenda.
Members of the Republican House will also no doubt refuse to say which specific programs should be cut, lest it be too easy to identify the beefs they want to gore. But the Republican review committee released a budget plan in June that called for cutting Social Security benefits for anyone who retires before age 70, raising the Medicare eligibility age to 70 and scheduling the age of eligibility for both programs to increase steadily over time. And it’s all on top of their proposed $3.3 trillion cut to Medicaid over 10 years.
The study committee is the largest bloc of House Republicans, though it mostly represents members with safe seats and a GOP majority would likely curb those plans for sweeping cuts to popular programs. It’s impossible to say how much that would do, as House Republicans (like their Senate colleagues) won’t be specific until November 8. But in terms of general direction, that’s clearly where the party is headed, with the debt ceiling. as a leverage point.
Using the debt ceiling as leverage to try to secure cuts to Medicare and Medicaid is exactly what House Republicans did in 2011, the last time a new majority faced off against an incumbent Democratic president.
Which reminds us that one of the greatest myths in contemporary politics – popular in both parties – is the idea that there is an interesting “new” conservative movement that has set aside the orthodoxy of the small government of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan’s 2012 presidential ticket. It is certainly true that the Republican Party has become home to a cast of more colorful characters and now relies on a much more economically inferior electoral base. But its main economic policy commitments have not changed.
Of course, just because Republicans have the same aspirations doesn’t mean they’ll succeed if they win. The latest round of the debt ceiling crisis produced economically costly financial uncertainty, but was ultimately resolved by cuts to military and national discretionary spending, rather than the privatization of Medicare that Republicans were calling for.
Another turn of the tightrope could lead to the same result. It could also work. Or it could fail dramatically. Whatever happens, however, a Republican victory is pretty much a guarantee of a political and economic crisis aimed at enacting fiscal austerity.
In a sane world, this impending crisis — and the prospect of cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid — would dominate political debate right now. Unfortunately, as has been clear for some time, reason is lacking in American politics.
More from Bloomberg Opinion:
• Republicans, Don’t Ignore US Bills: Michael R. Bloomberg
• Ditch the debt ceiling before the Republicans win the House: Jonathan Bernstein
• US debt limit constrains nothing but honesty: Ramesh Ponnuru
• Raise the debt ceiling, Republicans. You’ll be glad you did: Michael Strain
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Matthew Yglesias is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. Co-founder and former columnist of Vox, he writes the Slow Boring blog and newsletter. He is the author, most recently, of “One Billion Americans”.
More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion