Faking the Pledge

Republican promises of fiscal sobriety ring hollow.


In the "Pledge to America" they unveiled last week, House Republicans promise they will "launch a sustained effort to stem the relentless growth in government that has occurred over the past decade." Who better for the job than the folks who ran the government for most of that time?

If the GOP's record of fiscal fecklessness were not enough reason to doubt its newfound commitment to curbing "Washington's irresponsible spending habits," the pledge's failure to address entitlement and defense programs would be. The Republicans say they want to "have a responsible, fact-based conversation with the American people about the scale of the fiscal challenges we face and the urgent action that is required to deal with them." That's hard to do when only a small share of the $3.8 trillion budget is open for discussion, and then only in the vaguest terms.

The Pledge to America, which seems to be based on the assumption that America has a short memory, castigates Democrats for "their out-of-control spending spree." Republicans, you may recall, had a spending spree of their own during George W. Bush's recently concluded administration, when both discretionary and total spending doubled—nearly 10 times the growth seen during Bill Clinton's two terms.

In fact, says Veronique de Rugy, a senior research fellow at George Mason University's Mercatus Center, "President Bush increased government spending more than any of the six presidents preceding him, including LBJ." Republicans controlled Congress for six of Bush's eight years, and their fingerprints are all over Bush's budget busters, including the trillion-dollar wars to replace dictators with democrats in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Medicare prescription drug benefit, enacted in 2003, is expected to cost something like $800 billion during its first decade, further darkening Medicare's already dire fiscal outlook. It passed the Senate with 42 Republican votes and the House with 207.

The Troubled Asset Relief Program, which the Republicans now promise to "cancel" because it exemplifies the "bailouts" that have "rightly outraged" the public by "forc[ing] responsible taxpayers to subsidize irresponsible behavior," received 34 Republican votes in the Senate and 91 in the House. The yeas included House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), Republican Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.), Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.)—all of whom are pictured in the Pledge to America as models of fiscal rectitude and all of whom also supported the reckless Medicare expansion.

As of last week, however, the Republicans pledge to "make the decisions that are necessary to protect our entitlement programs for today's seniors and future generations." Such as? Sorry, that's all you're getting before the elections.

"Let's not get to the potential solutions," Boehner said in a Fox News interview on Sunday. "When you start down that path, you just invite all kinds of problems." Aren't solutions that invite problems what Congress is all about?

Boehner's insistence that an "adult conversation" about entitlements need not include any discussion of what to do about them suggests a certain lack of seriousness. Likewise the Pledge to America's complaints about Obama's "massive Medicare cuts" and its treatment of anything pertaining to "seniors" (one-third of the budget) as a sacred category.

The Republicans think expenditures related to "security" deserve the same exalted status, presumably because a government that is bumbling, wasteful, and ineffective in every other endeavor could not possibly display those characteristics when protecting Americans from terrorists. Yet defense is, among other things, a fiscal issue, consuming a fifth of the budget. The Republicans' grandiose goal of "bringing certainty to an uncertain world" is inconsistent with their goal of "a smaller, less costly, and more accountable government."

Even if you trust the Republicans when they say "we have a plan" to cut $100 billion from the budget, that amounts to just 8 percent of the current $1.3 trillion deficit. And why trust them? As the Pledge to America warns, "it's not enough" to "swap out one set of leaders for another."

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason and a nationally syndicated columnist.

© Copyright 2010 by Creators Syndicate Inc.