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The House war on budgeting is also a war on democracy
The GOP IRS cuts show the Republicans lie about their own policy goals.
House Republicans this week passed a $14.3 billion Israel aid package which included $14.3 billion in cuts to the IRS.
I don’t think US should be providing unconditional aid to Israel given indiscriminate killing of civilians in Gaza. But the cuts to offset the aid are also bad. The money from the IRS budget is supposed to offset the spending, rendering the bill budget neutral. But the Congressional Budget Office found that slashing funding for the IRS would actually result in a massive net loss of revenue. This was entirely predictable and it shows once again that Republican don’t actually care about the deficit or about responsible budgeting.
Worse, it suggests that the GOP reflexively deceives the public, their constituents, and perhaps themselves about their own policy goals. That kind of deception is corrosive; how can you engage in democratic deliberation and debate when one party systematically lies about its own policy aims?
The budgeting negotiations in the House were led by new Speaker Mike Johnson, who claimed the IRS cuts were a fiscally responsible approach to providing aid to Israel. “We want to protect and help and assist our friend Israel, but we have to keep our own house in order as well,” he said. “I think the American people understand that. At home, you have to balance your budget.”
Budgeting for a household is a lot different than budgeting for a country, because a household can’t print its own money. But even setting that aside, most people understand that budgeting has to take into account not just spending, but income. If a small auto repair business fires all of its employees, its costs will fall. But it will then have no one on site able to fix cars, which means that its income will fall even more—to zero. That will put it more in debt, not less. If you’re budgeting, you have to account both for what you spend and for what you earn. Refusing to look at earning isn’t fiscal responsibility. It’s foolishness.
And sure enough, cutting IRS spending—which means cutting revenue—is a terrible way to balance a budget. The CBO concluded that with $14.3 billion less, the IRS would slash its capacity so much that wealthy tax cheats would be able to avoid paying $26.8 billion. That means Johnson’s tax cuts would increase the deficit by $12.5 billion more than the $14.3 billion for Israel.
Johnson responded to the news by trying to delegitimize the CBO, and by pretending he doesn’t understand how revenue works. “Only in Washington when you cut spending do they call it an increase in the deficit,” Johnson said. But again, the CBO didn’t say that cutting spending would increase the deficit. It said that cutting revenue would increase the deficit. Surely Johnson, who has been praised as a “bespectacled policy wonk,” should be able to understand this stunningly simple principle.
Johnson’s deliberately bespectacled pig-headedness is infuriating. It’s also typical of the GOP. As political scientist Jonathan Bernstein argued as far back as 2012, the Republican party has been engaged in a long-running “war on budgeting.” The GOP claims that they want to balance the budget. But they consistently fight for massive tax cuts for the wealthy and for increased spending on their priorities like defense. They only object to spending they don’t like—such as funds for public transportation or arts. (Sure enough, the House GOP is trying to slash funds for Amtrak and cut the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts entirely.)
When the GOP says they care about deficits, what they mean is that they hate spending on things they don’t like and want more spending on things they do like. “Responsible budgeting” just means, “Republican spending priorities.” The GOP has absolutely zero interest in balancing budgets—which is why deficits consistently spike under Republican presidents. It’s hard to control the deficit if you change the meaning of the term “deficit” to mean “spending I don’t like” and change the term “balanced budget” to mean “spending priorities I like”.
There’s a decent argument that deficits don’t in fact matter that much. Trump occasionally said as much. But his off-message blips just emphasize the extent to which the GOP in general insists that deficits are important even as it behaves as if they are not.
It’s hard to tell if Republicans are deliberately lying to their constituents or if they really are so deep in their own derp that they can’t understand how revenue works. Either way, the effect is the same; the GOP is telling its voters that it is fighting against deficits when it is absolutely not in any way fighting against deficits. Its messaging is a lie.
The GOP has done a lot to undermine democracy recently. Mike Johnson himself led the Congressional effort to overturn the 2020 election and illegally install Donald Trump against the will of the voters. Republicans in North Carolina have put in place a brutal gerrymander that essentially makes it impossible for Democrats to win a purple state, effectively establishing authoritarian one-party rule.
Lying to voters about deficits seems relatively tame in comparison. But it’s all of a piece. Republicans could tell voters they don’t care about deficits and think it’s really important to give the wealthy tax cuts. Then voters could decide policy on the merits. That’s how democracy is supposed to work.
Instead, Republicans try to deceive the electorate, insisting that they care about fiscal responsibility while acting like the CBO is engaged in some sort of conspiracy when it points out that less revenue increases the deficit. That’s not just a war on budgeting. It’s a war on truth. Which means it’s also a war on democracy.
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