Lunatics Running Asylum

Eric and Irene

By , NY Times, September 1, 2011

“Have you left no sense of decency?” That’s the question Joseph Welch famously asked Joseph McCarthy, as the red-baiting demagogue tried to ruin yet another innocent citizen. And these days, it’s the question I find myself wanting to ask Eric Cantor, the House majority leader, who has done more than anyone else to make policy blackmail — using innocent Americans as hostages — standard operating procedure for the G.O.P.

A few weeks ago, Mr. Cantor was the hard man in the confrontation over the debt ceiling; he was willing to endanger America’s financial credibility, putting our whole economy at risk, in order to extract budget concessions from President Obama. Now he’s doing it again, this time over disaster relief, making headlines by insisting that any federal aid to the victims of Hurricane Irene be offset by cuts in other spending. In effect, he is threatening to take Irene’s victims hostage.

Mr. Cantor’s critics have been quick to accuse him of hypocrisy, and with good reason. After all, he and his Republican colleagues showed no comparable interest in paying for the Bush administration’s huge unfunded initiatives. In particular, they did nothing to offset the cost of the Iraq war, which now stands at $800 billion and counting.

And it turns out that in 2004, when his home state of Virginia was struck by Tropical Storm Gaston, Mr. Cantor voted against a bill that would have required the same pay-as-you-go rule that he now advocates.

But, as I see it, hypocrisy is a secondary issue here. The primary issue should be the extraordinary nihilism now on display by Mr. Cantor and his colleagues — their willingness to flout all the usual conventions of fair play and, well, decency in order to get what they want.

Not long ago, a political party seeking to change U.S. policy would try to achieve that goal by building popular support for its ideas, then implementing those ideas through legislation. That, after all, is how our political system was designed to work.

But today’s G.O.P. has decided to bypass all that and go for a quicker route. Never mind getting enough votes to pass legislation; it gets what it wants by threatening to hurt America if its demands aren’t met. That’s what happened with the debt-ceiling fight, and now it’s what’s happening over disaster aid. In effect, Mr. Cantor and his allies are threatening to take hurricane victims hostage, using their suffering as a bargaining chip.

Of course, Mr. Cantor would have you believe that he’s just trying to be fiscally responsible. But that’s no more than a cover story.

Should disaster aid, as a matter of sound public finance, be offset by immediate cuts in other spending? No. The time-honored principle, backed by economists right and left, is that temporary bursts of spending — which usually arise when there’s a war to fight, but can also arise from other causes, including financial crises and natural disasters — are a good reason to run temporary budget deficits. Rather than imposing sharp cuts in other spending or sharply raising taxes, governments can and should spread the burden over time, borrowing now and repaying gradually via a combination of lower spending and higher taxes.

But can the U.S. government borrow to pay for disaster aid? Isn’t the government broke? Yes, it can, and, no, it isn’t. America has a long-run deficit problem, which should be met with long-run budget measures. But it’s having no problem at all borrowing to pay for current expenses. Moreover, it’s able to borrow funds at extremely low interest rates. Notably, right now the interest rate on the benchmark 10-year U.S. government bond is only slightly more than half what it was in 2004 when Mr. Cantor felt that it wasn’t necessary to pay for disaster relief.

So the claim that fiscal responsibility requires immediate spending cuts to offset the cost of disaster relief is just wrong, in both theory and practice. As I said, it’s just a cover story for the real game being played here.

Now, Mr. Cantor may end up backing down on this one, if only because several of the hard-hit states have Republican governors, who want and need aid soon, without strings attached. But that won’t put an end to the larger issue: What will happen to America now that people like Mr. Cantor are calling the shots for one of its two major political parties?

And, yes, I mean one of our parties. There are plenty of bad things to be said about the Democrats, who have their fair share of cynics and careerists. There may even be Democrats in Congress who would be as willing as Mr. Cantor to advance their goals through sabotage and blackmail (although I can’t think of any). But, if they exist, they aren’t in important leadership positions. Mr. Cantor is. And that should worry anyone who cares about our nation’s future.

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