I HAVE FOUND it entertaining, in a grim sort of way, to watch Republicans debate each other over whether and how to pay for post-Katrina rebuilding. All of the pathologies of Republican fiscal thinking are on full display. The debate isn’t between right and wrong but rather between various exotic ideological tendencies, each more detached from reality than the last. I imagine this is what it was like during the 1960s to watch radical left-wing factions debate whether the white working class would rise up and overthrow the government or whether blacks would have to be the revolutionary vanguard.
The problem confounding the conservatives is that rebuilding from the hurricane is liable to cost the federal government about $200 billion. This comes on top of the large deficits that have already accumulated during the Bush era. What is a good conservative to do about all this?
Some Republicans, led by Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, insist that the rebuilding effort be offset with cuts in wasteful spending. This makes sense, until you consider the fact that there aren’t nearly enough of them. Coburn, a balanced-budget crusader, produced a list of cuts adding up to about $100 billion. That leaves half the cost of the rebuilding unaccounted for, not to mention the deficits we had before Katrina.
This is the problem with the GOP’s fiscal hawks. They rightly complain about wasteful spending and call for budget balance. Yet they don’t seem to grasp that the scale of the spending cuts they propose is nowhere close to the scale of the red ink. Accepting this fact would lead them to the realization that the cost of Bush’s wasteful spending is dwarfed by the cost of his tax cuts, and down that road lies heresy.
The additional comic twist to Coburn’s view is that he apparently rejects helping pay for Katrina with tax hikes on the grounds that the sacrifice should be borne by members of Congress. Conservative columnist Robert Novak, defending Coburn’s view, complained that tax hikes would mean “a few successful Americans, not the elected politicians, would be doing the sacrificing.” But aren’t members of Congress also successful? Certainly they constitute a smaller group than the thousands of Americans in the top tax bracket.
Standing in opposition to Coburn is Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), who insists, incredibly, that we can’t pay for Katrina by cutting pork because there is no pork. As DeLay put it, “After 11 years of Republican majority, we’ve pared [the budget] down pretty good.”
Keep in mind that it has been less than two months since DeLay rammed through a transportation bill larded up with more than 6,000 earmarked projects, which is the traditional mechanism for distributing pork. To get a sense of how much pork this is, Ronald Reagan vetoed a bill in 1987 because it had 152 earmarked projects. One taxpayer group estimates that pork-barrel spending accounts for $27 billion a year.
Even further out into the realm of fantasy is Grover Norquist -- Karl Rove ally and conservative activist extraordinaire.
Norquist plans to pay for the rebuilding with -- you’ll never guess -- tax cuts. “Step one is you deal with the problem -- rebuild New Orleans,” he told the New York Times, “and step two, you enact economic policies so you can afford to rebuild New Orleans.” So we’re back to the supply-side alchemy of insisting that tax cuts will create more revenue. You sort of wonder why he thinks we have a deficit to begin with. After all, we’ve cut taxes four times since Bush took office.
Which variant of lunacy is going to come out on top? I’m going with Norquist. The usual guideline in these kinds of circumstances is craziest man wins.