Paul Ryan
Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

There are so many things in the news every day that make me angry but for some reason this bit from Politico’s Playbook makes me absolutely livid:

HOUSE REPUBLICANS will take up a balanced-budget amendment when they return from recess, several sources tell us. This follows on the heels of their $1.3-trillion budget bill and their massive tax bill. WHY DO THIS NOW? Here’s what we think: It’s almost election season, and it would be helpful if GOP lawmakers could go home and be able to say they voted to support balancing the federal budget, even though they voted to boost discretionary spending by a ton, and have not touched entitlement spending, which, they have said for years, is the driver of U.S. budget deficits.

It’s only one little paragraph but it contains enough effrontery to make me see red. And I think it’s unique in the sense that it should make everyone spitting mad no matter where their beliefs lie on the ideological spectrum. Anyone with even a modicum of policy chops knows that the balanced budget amendment is the dumbest idea ever devised. It would take one of America’s greatest advantages, that we have great credit and can borrow almost unlimited amounts of money because we print our own money and always have customers for our bonds, and make it illegal for Congress to utilize it in times of economic peril. If we could not use debt to stimulate a down economy, we’d be as vulnerable as Greece or Argentina to downward spirals, and considering the importance of our economy to the world economy, this would be a very dangerous development for everyone.

But it’s true that deficit spending comes with problems. The most consequential of them is that money spent financing the interest on debt is money that cannot be spent on real things like Social Security checks, college loans, nutrition assistance, research and development, or even ill-advised wars in Asia. This is why giving out an enormous tax cut to the wealthy doesn’t trickle down the way it is supposed to. Half the point of these tax cuts is to deny the federal government money to spend on programs that people like and find useful, or, in the words of Grover Norquist, to shrink the government down to a size small enough that it can be drowned in a bathtub. Partly this is done by taking in less revenue to begin with, and partly this is done my making us spend an ever-increasing percentage of our revenues on interest payments. If you go into debt to stabilize a cratering global economy, you are saving people from losing their businesses or their jobs and perhaps helping to ensure domestic tranquility and keep the peace between nations. If you go into debt for no particular reason at all other than to enrich your donors, you’re weakening the nation and hurting the vast majority of its people.

Still, if you’ve bought into the idea that the government should be smaller and that deficit spending is always a bad thing, then you should be outraged to see the Republicans in Congress completely disregard all their deficit hawkery with their tax cut and their huge appropriations omnibus bill, and then turn around and pretend that they’re really concerned about deficits. And it’s even worse than it seems.

If you had an alcoholic in your family who had just gone on a months long binge and then came to his senses, handed over the car keys and offered to enter a rehabilitation center, then you’d probably see that as a positive development. But the Republicans only support the balanced budget amendment because they know it will never become law. This is more like an alcoholic who says all the right things when the family comes together to confront them on their drinking, but who has no intention of actually changing his ways.

What they’ve done, after howling like banshees about the deficit for the totality of President Obama’s term, is to turn on a dime and fund the government at the same or even higher levels than Obama. And they decided to do this with much less revenue. Then, realizing that a good segment of their base wasn’t in on the joke from the beginning, they seek to appease them by pretending to be deficit hawks by voting for the stupidest idea in the history of the world: “it would be helpful if GOP lawmakers could go home and be able to say they voted to support balancing the federal budget.”

This takes bad faith, disingenuousness, and insincerity to unprecedented levels. To even attempt it demonstrates an unlimited contempt for the intelligence of the American voter. It’s like catching your child with his hand in the cookie jar and having to listen to him promise you that it’s okay because he plans to ban cookies altogether.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at