In September, future House Speaker John Boehner unveiled the GOP Pledge to America, which among its other warmed-over Republican nostrums promised to save "at least $100 billion in the first year alone" from the federal budget. On the eve of the election (around the 1:50 mark of the video above), Boehner doubled down, claiming the GOP Pledge would quickly lead to "saving taxpayers $100 billiion almost immediately." In December, incoming House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) repeated the GOP guarantee that "a good $100 billion" would be trimmed. Now, after months of cowardly refusing to specify what those draconian cuts to discretionary spending might be, Republicans are acknowledging their tough-talk was merely "hypothetical."
Republican leaders are scaling back that number by as much as half, aides say, because the current fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, will be nearly half over before spending cuts could become law.
While House Republicans were never expected to succeed in enacting cuts of that scale, given opposition in the Senate from the Democratic majority and some Republicans, and from President Obama, a House vote would put potentially vulnerable Republican lawmakers on record supporting deep reductions of up to 30 percent in education, research, law enforcement, transportation and more.
Now aides say that the $100 billion figure was hypothetical, and that the objective is to get annual spending for programs other than those for the military, veterans and domestic security back to the levels of 2008, before Democrats approved stimulus spending to end the recession.
Of course, there was nothing hypothetical about the budget ax Republicans promised to wield in the actual text of their Pledge to America last fall:
With common-sense exceptions for seniors, veterans, and our troops, we will roll back government spending to pre-stimulus, pre-bailout levels, saving us at least $100 billion in the first year alone and putting us on a path to balance the budget and pay down the debt. We will also establish strict budget caps to limit federal spending from this point forward.
A quick glance at the numbers, however, showed the Republican pledge came with an expiration date designed to come due on Election Day. As the New York Times and Bloomberg explained at the time, the GOP's promise to immediately return to pre-recession FY 2008 levels for "non-security discretionary spending" with would result in devastating cuts to popular and needed programs. With the Pentagon, Social Security and Medicare off the table, those draconian cutbacks would slash more than 20 percent of spending by departments like Education, Transportation, Interior, Commerce and Energy:
U.S. House Republicans' pledge to cut $100 billion from the federal budget next year would slash spending for education, cancer research and aid to local police and firefighters.
Keeping the midterm-campaign promise would require a Republican-led Congress to cut 21 percent of the $477 billion lawmakers have earmarked for domestic discretionary spending.
Which is why Republicans before the midterm elections and since steadfastly refused to say what cuts they would actually make.
Pressed by NBC's David Gregory in October, then third-ranking House Republican Mike Pence could not "name the painful choice on a program that you're going to cut." Asked seven times by Chris Wallace of Fox News, failed GOP California Senate hopeful Carly Fiorina responded only, "you're asking a typical political question." Even as he touted the "GOP Pledge to America," Speaker-to-Be Boehner dodged Wallace as well even as pledged an "adult conversation" on the budget:
"Let's not get to the potential solutions. Let's make sure Americans understand how big the problem is. Then we can talk about possible solutions and then work ourselves into those solutions that are doable."
As David Leonhardt of the New York Times summed up the Republican charade:
In their Pledge to America, Congressional Republicans have used the old trick of promising specific tax cuts and vague spending cuts. It's the politically easy approach, and it is likely to be as bad for the budget as when George W. Bush tried it.
During the lame-duck session of Congress, Republicans delivered on their budget-busting tax cuts for the wealthy. But when it comes to those spending reductions, the rest is silence.
Within 24 hours of the election, Eric Cantor, Michele Bachmann and Tennessee's Marsha Blackburn all did the duck-and-cover on spending cuts. With defense, Social Security and Medicare (not to mention interest on the national debt) off the table, the unexplained GOP pledge to cut $100 billion in "discretionary" spending would necessarily gut the departments of Education, Transportation, Interior, Commerce and Energy by more than 20%.
To be sure, there's no shortage of tough talk on spending from a GOP playing a dangerous game of chicken over the U.S. debt ceiling. Last month, incoming Kentucky Senator Rand Paul announced, "I think that every piece of major legislation that goes forward from now on needs to have attached to it spending cuts." Appearing on Fox News Sunday, Tom Coburn (R-OK) warned of "apocalyptic pain" due to future deficits and claimed, "There's well over $300 billion a year that I can lay out for you in detail that most Americans believe we should eliminate." And, as CNN reported, House Speaker-to-Be John Boehner is promising to keep his GOP Pledge to America, declaring "slashing the federal budget by $100 billion will be priority number one."
Unfortunately, Speaker Boehner like his Republican colleagues still won't say how. As CNN noted last month:
Asked which programs will be cut to get to the $100 billion target, Boehner did not offer specifics.
"But I will tell you," he told reporters earlier this month. "We are going to cut spending."
Even today, Rep. Ryan chickened out, telling Meredith Viera, "I can't tell you by what amount and which program, but all of it is going to be going down."
So much for that adult conversation.
If this you think you've heard this story before, it's because you have. In 1981, Ronald Reagan came to office promising to slash taxes and balance the budget. Instead, the national debt tripled under Reagan's watch, only to double again under George W. Bush. Sadly, the American people put the Republican Free Lunch Party back in the House majority. In so doing, they ignored Bush's own warning:
"There's an old saying...that says, fool me once, shame on -- shame on you. Fool me -- you can't get fooled again."
(This piece also appears at Perrspectives.)