Talking past each other

At first blush, policymakers in Washington appear to be engaged in a fiscal debate. And to be sure, the back and forth between the parties and institutions has all the elements of the usual fiscal debate — arguments over taxes, spending cuts, how best and how quickly to reduce the deficit, etc.

But as Ezra Klein noted this morning, appearances are misleading.

Republicans are negotiating not over the deficit, but over tax rates and the size of government. That’s why they’ve ruled revenue “off the table” as a way to reduce the deficit, and why they are calling for laws and even constitutional amendments that cap federal spending rather than attack deficits. Democrats, meanwhile, lack a similarly clear posture: most of them are negotiating to raise the debt ceiling, but a few are trying to survive in 2012, and a few more are actually trying to reduce the deficit, and meanwhile, the Obama administration just met with the Senate Democrats to ask them to please, please, stop laying down new negotiating markers every day.

If we were really just negotiating over the deficit, this would be easy. The White House, the House Republicans, the House Progressives, the House Democrats and the Senate Republicans have all released deficit-reduction plans. There’s not only apparent unanimity on the goal, but a broad menu of approaches. We’d just take elements from each and call it a day. But if the Republicans are negotiating over their antipathy to taxes and their belief that government should be much smaller, that’s a much more ideological, and much tougher to resolve, dispute.

This is well-traveled ground, but it’s worth the occasional reminder. The conventional wisdom tells us Republicans are desperate to reduce the deficit and address the debt. This isn’t true. They’re desperate to reduce the size of government, and are using a massive deficit — which the GOP is largely responsible for — as an excuse to do what they want to do anyway.

The conditions offer a compelling pretense, but that’s really all it is. The changes Republican officials are pushing are the same changes the party wants regardless of fiscal circumstances.

Take the GOP’s House budget, as crafted by Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). If fiscal responsibility is the principal goal, the Republican agenda is a total fraud — not only do its numbers not add up, but the budget plan includes massive tax breaks that make it harder, not easier, to close the budget shortfall.

Why would anyone cut taxes while trying to reduce the deficit? They wouldn’t, unless deficit reduction wasn’t really the point.

The same GOP budget plan intends to free Wall Street of safeguards and gut environmental protections, not because this will improve the fiscal picture, but because Republican are trying to shrink the government, not shrink the deficit. Also note that GOP officials leave the massive, bloated Pentagon budget largely intact, which only reinforces the larger point.

Remember, when Paul Ryan unveiled his plan, he boasted, “This isn’t a budget. This is a cause.” The goal is ideological, not fiscal. Congressional Republicans don’t care about the deficit; they care about shrinking government to a size in which they can drown it in the bathtub.

As Ezra concluded, “Negotiations are hard enough when both sides agree about the basic issue under contention. They’re almost impossible when they don’t.”