Gene Healy: GOP 'Pledge' lacks both cuts and courage

“Each of us is endowed by their Creator” with certain unalienable rights, the House Republicans' “Pledge to America” begins, in a grammatically challenged homage to the Declaration of Independence. “Whenever the agenda of government becomes destructive of these ends,” the prose plods on, “it is the right of the people to institute a new governing agenda and set a different course.”

In terms of literary craftsmanship, you wouldn't call this an improvement on Thomas Jefferson.

Nor are the policy proposals the sort that would inspire you to pledge your life, fortune, or sacred honor. Should Republicans recapture the House, they promise to cut an unspecified $100 billion from a $3.8 trillion federal budget in 2011. Eventually, they'd like to pare spending all the way back down to 2008 levels, while making “common-sense exceptions” for national security and programs for the elderly. (When you're faced with a national debt that's going to be larger than the entire US economy by 2012, apparently it's just “common sense” to leave two-thirds of the federal budget off the chopping block.)

An honest prescription for restoring fiscal health calls for a harsh bedside manner: snapping the rubber glove and announcing “this will hurt.”

But promising pain isn't usually smart politics, so it's hardly surprising the GOP didn't draft a campaign manifesto emphasizing base closures and Medicare cuts. What's really tough to stomach, though, is how the document bloviates about fiscal responsibility while bemoaning Obamacare's “massive Medicare cuts, which fall squarely on the backs of seniors.”

The Pledge has managed to distract attention from the Democratic implosion without winning the Red Team much credit for a “positive agenda.” Neither specific nor serious enough to serve as a post-election mandate, “Contract 2.0” instead perpetuates the fantasy that you can whittle your way free of crushing debt simply by cutting nondefense discretionary spending–about 17 percent of the federal budget.

If you'd prefer a guide to reality-based budgeting, visit downsizinggovernment.org, where my Cato Institute colleagues have begun outlining measures that could put America on the path toward fiscal sanity. GOP “common sense” notwithstanding, the largest savings can be found in spending categories the Pledge leaves off the table.

A defense strategy that actually focused on defense–rather than nation-building and military welfare for rich allies–would save at least $1.2 trillion over 10 years. Voucherizing Medicare and converting Medicaid to a fixed block grant cuts another $1 trillion in expenses, while reducing current obligations under Social Security would save $50 billion annually by 2020.

In an MSNBC appearance Friday, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., one of the Pledge's architects, wouldn't name a single program he'd cut, even in nondefense discretionary spending. McCarthy should check out the “Downsizing” site, where, among other items, he'll find specifics on zeroing out unconstitutional federal education subsidies, energy subsidies, and farm welfare–sufficient to get him past $100 billion without breaking a sweat.

Vague promises about fiscal responsibility are par for the course on the campaign trail. But self-styled fiscal conservatives need to face up to the reality that our looming budgetary crisis can't be averted without substantial cuts in payments to middle-class people who vote.

Census Bureau data show that nearly half of Americans now live in a household where somebody receives federal benefits; that's up from 30 percent in Reagan's first term, and higher than ever before in our history. We may or may not be “ones we've been waiting for,” but we're surely the ones who've been bankrupting ourselves.

The State, after all, is “the great fictitious entity by which everyone seeks to live at the expense of everyone else,” as the great French economist Frederic Bastiat put it in 1848. In America, the bill for that fantasy is fast coming due.

Examiner Columnist Gene Healy is a vice president at the Cato Institute and the author of “The Cult of the Presidency.”

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