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The new Republican majority in the House seems eager to prove its “reform” credentials by taking an ax to domestic spending programs. That may mollify some angry members of the electorate, but it’s not the general public’s top priority. What most Americans want is to reduce unemployment through faster economic growth. If the GOP’s zeal to shrink the federal government causes it to ignore the lingering economic misery, it’s destined to be written off by voters as out of touch, just as Democrats were in 2010.

The new House convenes Wednesday by voting on a set of rules that purports to bolster budget discipline, making it harder for lawmakers to increase spending and easier for them to cut it. In fact, the rules would give one member — Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), the incoming chairman of the Budget Committee — the authority to set spending limits for the rest of the year, which could not be exceeded by any bill unless a majority of the House agreed to waive them. It’s a stunning amount of power to hand to a single person. Just because Congress failed last year to pass a budget resolution setting such limits doesn’t mean Ryan should be able to do so by fiat.

Ryan has said he plans to cap spending on programs other than defense and homeland security at “pre-bailout, pre-stimulus” levels. To meet that requirement, the House would have to slash many government programs by tens of billions of dollars in the second half of the fiscal year, after the temporary appropriations expire. That would set up a fight with the Democratic-controlled Senate, which obviously wouldn’t be expected to abide by spending limits set unilaterally by a single House member.


The bigger question is how, exactly, would a sudden, dramatic cut in federal spending help the sluggish economy? If federal borrowing were the problem, as Republicans suggest, interest rates would be high enough to choke off the supply of private capital. Instead, interest rates are low, but businesses have been reluctant to expand because consumer spending has been weak.

It’s anybody’s guess at this point whether the economy is sturdy enough to absorb a deep reduction in federal spending along with the expected cuts by beleaguered state and local governments. Yet Republicans just won the argument over extending the Bush-era tax cuts for wealthy Americans by saying the recovery was too fragile to withstand a tax increase.

But then the new House rules aren’t really about reducing the deficit. They would allow lawmakers to continue borrowing without limit for the war in Afghanistan, for another extension of the Bush-era tax cuts and for further cuts in taxes on estates or small businesses. They also would let the House GOP try to repeal the healthcare reform law without offsetting the projected cost of doing so.

Deficit spending is a real problem, but it’s a long-term one. Congress should lay out a plan now for bringing the deficit under control — and in particular the growth in Medicare and Medicaid costs, which are the biggest factors by far — after the economy is on sure footing. In the meantime, lawmakers should keep their focus on growing the economy, which is what the vote in November was really about.