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McCarthy's Opening Budget Bid Nothing But Vague Spin

[ Posted Tuesday, March 28th, 2023 – 16:17 UTC ]

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy just made his opening bid in the high-stakes poker game he wants to play with President Joe Biden over raising the debt ceiling. Biden's position from the start has been that America can't afford playing games with the full faith and credit of the United States on the table, and he has called on McCarthy to play exactly the same game of poker that gets played every year, but with only the usual stakes -- which, at worse, might lead to a temporary government shutdown. Biden wants a clean bill to raise the debt ceiling from Congress and then he will be open to holding negotiations for the annual federal budget (which is an entirely separate matter).

McCarthy's bid came in the form of a letter sent to Biden, in which he mightily attempts to put his own political spin on the situation. You could even call it gaslighting, since it ignores a few salient facts and pushes forth an alternate version of reality. McCarthy's hand is weak, though, and it doesn't look like it's going to get much stronger any time soon. The House Republicans can apparently only agree on very vague statements along the lines of: "Gosh, it'd be nice to save some money," without any specifics about much of anything. What will change this (if and when it happens) is when the House Republicans start publicly releasing their own budget plans, complete with actual line items and actual budget numbers. Which, from all reports, is not likely to happen before May (at the earliest).

The biggest salient fact that McCarthy conveniently leaves out is that the White House already has publicly released their own opening bid -- a budget proposal complete with actual numbers. Here is McCarthy's first paragraph from the letter he just sent -- see if you can spot the glaring omission:

Dear Mr. President:

Nearly two months ago, you and I sat down to discuss a path forward on the debt limit. Since that time, however, you and your team have been completely missing in action on any meaningful follow-up to this rapidly approaching deadline.

This is impossible to square with the reality of plunking down an actual budget on the table -- and publicly releasing it to boot, so everyone can see where Biden's priorities actually are. That is "missing in action"? That's not a "meaningful follow-up"? In what universe?

He then follows this up with some even-more-obtuse gaslighting:

With each passing day, I am incredibly concerned that you are putting an already fragile economy in jeopardy by insisting upon your extreme position of refusing to negotiate any meaningful changes to out-of-control government spending alongside an increase of the debt limit. Your position -- if maintained -- could prevent America from meeting its obligations and hold dire ramifications for the entire nation.

The facts of the matter are: the budget is completely separate from the debt ceiling; they are two different things, not one and the same. When a Republican is in the White House, Republicans have no problem passing debt ceiling hikes through Congress -- in fact, while Donald Trump was in office, they did so three times without uttering a peep about the budget or the deficit or the national debt. McCarthy and his band of MAGA Republicans are the ones holding the debt ceiling hostage for leverage in the budget talks, not Biden. Biden is just asking for the same thing they did regularly for Trump, period. The only parts of that paragraph that aren't completely backwards are the parts where McCarthy admits what fire he is playing with -- putting the economy in jeopardy which will have dire ramifications for the entire nation.

The truly up-is-down and darkly ironic aspect of all of this is that while McCarthy supposedly cares about reducing the national debt and reining in the annual deficit, if he does push things to the brink and we do default on our debt, it will absolutely explode both the deficit and the debt because even if it only happens momentarily (with Congress scrambling to fix it after a few days or even a few weeks) it will have the effect of downgrading our credit rating on the world market -- which will make all government borrowing more expensive for years if not decades to come. This isn't the same thing as a short-term government shutdown, where things can get back to normal after a few weeks -- instead, these very expensive aftereffects will be with us for a long time to come. Which, as I mentioned, would explode the national debt over time and force a higher and higher percentage of the federal budget to go towards interest payments on that debt. All of this, of course, is why Biden is so insistent that these negotiations over the budget take place within the confines of the budget bills and not the debt ceiling.

So what is McCarthy asking for, in his game of "chicken"? Well, it's hard to tell. He starts by laughably stating that "House Republicans are united," which is about as far from reality as one can get. What are they united over? Three things, which McCarthy has helpfully bolded within his text: "Limit Spending, Save Taxpayer Money, and Grow the Economy." Well golly gee, that all sure sounds great, Kev, but... um... how exactly are you going to do any of that?

McCarthy proposes five policies which he somehow crams into four bullet points. Here is what Republicans are going to ask for (with the political spin edited out) -- McCarthy's opening bid (which he prefaces with: "These include, but are not limited to," just to let everyone know that things could be added later):

"Reducing excessive non-defense government spending to pre-inflationary levels and limiting out-year growth..."

"Reclaiming unspent COVID funds that have sat dormant for over two years"

"Strengthening work requirements for those without dependents who can work..."

"Policies to grow our economy and... lower energy costs [and] make America energy independent"

"Secure our border from the flow of deadly fentanyl that is killing 300 Americans per day."

The second and the third of these are likely not really even going to be an issue. Some COVID funds are likely going to have to be reclaimed at some point, since the crisis is now going to be officially over. And because it will be officially over at the federal level, a lot of work requirements which have been waived since the emergency was declared are suddenly going to be back in force again. McCarthy doesn't say whether this is what he's talking about or not, however, and could be pushing for work requirements for federal programs that don't already have them, to be fair.

Which leaves three items on McCarthy's list. The first is so vague as to be meaningless. What is "excessive non-defense government spending"? What "pre-inflationary levels" is he talking about? Some House Republicans have latched onto a very simplistic way to roll back spending -- just return all the budget levels to some point in the past (often 2019, the year before the pandemic hit) and hey presto, we have reduced spending. In reality, this would mean massive cuts to every program across the board, which we would all see in detail if the proposal ever makes it into an actual GOP budget. But for now, this is no more than a vague and gauzy wish.

It sure sounds like "grow our economy" means "letting the oil companies drill wherever they want," but again, there is no there there -- it's just a vague aspiration. And the last item, securing the border, is nothing short of a "golden oldie" for Republicans, since the border will never be sufficiently sealed for their political purposes. They can't even move their own bill on what to do about the border through the House because the Republicans can't agree on what exactly should be done, so it's pretty obvious that House Republicans are (contrary to McCarthy's boast) far from "united" on the issue.

McCarthy, as he often does, immediately undermined the case he was trying to make with this letter. The White House pushed back immediately and accurately pointed out the fact that Biden has released his budget while McCarthy is still months away from doing so: "All we've heard from them is a list of devastating cuts to law enforcement and border security and proposals to take health care away from Americans and raise health-care and child-care costs." In other words: we showed you ours, now you have to show us yours. McCarthy, however, while insisting that all of these budgetary matters must be tied to the debt ceiling, candidly admitted on CNBC that it was indeed all hostage-taking and the two are entirely unrelated: "Let's be very honest about this: The budget doesn't have anything to do with the debt ceiling. I can pass a budget tomorrow, and we'll still need to pass a debt ceiling.... These are apples and oranges." The only thing wrong with this statement is that McCarthy is putting the cart before the horse (the apple before the orange?) and really should have admitted the reality of the situation -- he could pass a debt ceiling hike tomorrow and then he'd still have to pass the budget. Every single thing the Republicans are asking for is a budgetary matter which will be fought about during budget negotiations. The debt ceiling has nothing to do with any of it -- it is merely a convenient hostage the Republicans are attempting to hold over Biden during those budget negotiations. And McCarthy has no budget proposal, and likely won't for months to come. That is the reality. That's the weakness of his hand.

Other Democrats also helpfully pointed this out in no uncertain terms. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer spoke on the Senate floor, in response to McCarthy's letter:

Speaker [Kevin] McCarthy says he wants to sit down with the president. But if he comes to the president's office with no specific plan, no specific details about what the Republicans want to cut -- what are they going to talk about? The weather?

. . .

Speaker McCarthy has failed to unite his conference behind a single proposal that can win 218 votes. When Speaker McCarthy points fingers at Democrats, all he is doing is deflecting from problems he has in his own conference. Those on the MAGA right want to pull one way, and those who are mainstream want to pull another way, and he can't bring the two of them together.

The House chair of the Democratic caucus (Representative Pete Aguilar) scathingly scoffed: "What I saw out of the speaker's letter... was a couple of bullet points. Bullet points don't make a budget."

So while McCarthy's letter hilariously ends with him sternly demanding: "Mr. President, simply put: you are on the clock.... Please have your team reach out to mine by the end of this week to set a date for our next meeting," it would be an entirely meaningless thing to do. Kevin McCarthy's Republicans are anything but unified in what they want to see in this year's budget. They're not going to get unified any time soon, either. Their tentative deadline for getting their budget act together of "perhaps by May" is nothing more than aspirational -- which McCarthy might easily blow through, if the negotiations within his own caucus get contentious enough. And, of course, the matter won't be interfering with the regular congressional schedule either, so McCarthy's "on the clock" is pretty laughable. I'll end with one stray paragraph from the article that provided all these quotes, to show precisely how critical Kevin McCarthy truly thinks this matter is:

House Republicans are already behind schedule in crafting a budget plan, and lawmakers are about to take a scheduled two-week recess.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


3 Comments on “McCarthy's Opening Budget Bid Nothing But Vague Spin”

  1. [1] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    How DARE you refuse to debate me over the budget i haven't sent you with the terms i haven't included...

  2. [2] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    So while McCarthy's letter hilariously ends with him sternly demanding: "Mr. President, simply put: you are on the clock.... Please have your team reach out to mine by the end of this week to set a date for our next meeting," it would be an entirely meaningless thing to do. Kevin McCarthy's Republicans are anything but unified in what they want to see in this year's budget. They're not going to get unified any time soon, either.

    Well, why not meet with the Speaker, anyways ... if only to show in dramatic fashion how discombobulated the Republican cult of economic failure actually is, still! That should be worth something!

  3. [3] 
    andygaus wrote:

    I wonder if McCarthy or anybody on the Republican side thinks that if they fail to raise the debt ceiling, everyone will blame Biden for the horrific results.

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