New York Magazine columnist Jonathan Chait explains what ought to be obvious to everyone, but isn’t:
Republicans think government spending is huge, but they can’t really identify ways they want to solve that problem, because government spending is not really huge. That is to say, on top of an ideological gulf between the two parties, we have an epistemological gulf. The Republican understanding of government spending is based on hazy, abstract notions that don’t match reality and can’t be translated into a workable program.
…The United States spends way less money on social services than do other advanced countries, and even that low figure is inflated by our sky-high health-care prices. The retirement benefits to programs like Social Security are quite meager. Public infrastructure is grossly underfunded.
The Bowles-Simpson “plan” was an earnest and badly needed attempt to reconcile the GOP’s hazy belief that government is enormous with reality. They did everything they could possibly do: They brought in representatives from all sides for long meetings with budget experts, going through all aspects of federal policy in detail, in the hope of reaching an agreement on the proper scope of government and how to pay for it. It failed. The Bowles-Simpson plan wound up punting on all the major questions because it simply couldn’t bridge that gulf between perception and reality.
…The real domestic savings in Bowles-Simpson came from building on Obamacare’s steps to save money by holding down the growth of health-care costs and to cut defense spending by pretty steep levels. But these turned out to be ideas that alienated rather than satisfied Republicans. So basically it turned out to be impossible to find real spending cuts that Republicans wanted.
…This is why the spending side of the fiscal cliff negotiation is so discouraging. The potential cuts on the table range from fairly painful steps like reducing the Social Security cost-of-living index to even more painful steps like raising the Medicare retirement age, and none of them would save all that much money — certainly not on the scale that Republicans want.
When the only cuts on the table would inflict real harm on people with modest incomes and save small amounts of money, that is a sign that there’s just not much money to save. It’s not just that Republicans disagree with this; they don’t seem to understand it. The absence of a Republican spending proposal is not just a negotiating tactic but a howling void where a specific grasp of the role of government ought to be. And negotiating around that void is extremely hard to do. The spending cuts aren’t there because they can’t be found.
Fortunately, there is already a deficit-reduction plan that has passed Congress and been signed into law by President Obama. It lets the Bush-Obama Tax Cuts For The Rich expire at the end of the 2012, and cuts Pentagon spending by $500 billion over the next 10 years, with $55 billion of it expected in the first year.
UPDATE: Rep. Chris Van Hollen: Boehner is stalling on a so-called “fiscal cliff” deal until after his re-election as Speaker of the House on January 3.
UPDATE: Paul Krugman: “It’s a dangerous situation. The G.O.P. is lost and rudderless, bitter and angry, but it still controls the House and, therefore, retains the ability to do a lot of harm, as it lashes out in the death throes of the conservative dream.”