SYNOPSIS: What your Congress has been doing while you have been distracted by war
As the war began, members of the House of Representatives gave speech after speech praising our soldiers, and passed a resolution declaring their support for the troops. Then they voted to slash veterans' benefits.
Some of us have long predicted that the drive to cut taxes on corporations and the wealthy would lead to a fiscal dance of the seven veils. One at a time, the pretenses would be dropped — the pretense that big tax cuts wouldn't preclude new programs like prescription-drug insurance, the pretense that the budget would remain in surplus, the pretense that spending could be cut painlessly by eliminating waste and fraud, the pretense that spending cuts wouldn't hurt the middle class.
There are still several veils to remove before the true face of "compassionate conservatism" is revealed, but we're getting there.
I've always assumed that at some point the American people would realize what was happening and demand an end to the process. Now, though, I'm not so sure, and that wartime vote illustrates why.
A digression: we have entered a new stage in the tax-cut debate. Until now, the Bush administration and its allies haven't made any effort to explain how they plan to replace the revenues lost because of tax cuts. Now, however, party discipline is starting to crack: a few Republicans in the House and Senate, and many erstwhile supporters on Wall Street are beginning to notice how much we're looking like a banana republic.
That House budget was a halfhearted attempt to assuage those concerns; for the first time, the Republican leadership went beyond generalities about cutting spending to a list of specific cuts.
But the result wasn't very convincing: it still contained several dollars in tax cuts for every dollar of spending cuts. Furthermore, the list of cuts — in child nutrition, medical care for children, child-care assistance and support for foster care and adoption (leave no child behind!) — was clearly designed to suggest that the budget can be balanced on the backs of the poor, without any significant cuts in programs that benefit the middle class.
Aside from its mean-spiritedness, this suggestion is simply false: our deficits are too large, and our current spending on the poor too small, for even the most Scrooge-like of governments to offer additional tax cuts for the rich without raising taxes or cutting benefits for the middle class.
So it's not too surprising that the House budget failed to win over the doubters, though it's unclear what will happen next. In a bizarre piece of parliamentary maneuvering, wavering senators agreed to vote for a budget resolution that would allow $550 billion in tax cuts, in return for a gentlemen's agreement from Bill Frist and Charles Grassley that the actual sum won't exceed $350 billion.
I'm no expert on this, but given the underhanded tactics that were used to push tax cuts through in 2001 — the Senate's cap on the 10-year tax cut was evaded by making the whole thing expire after 9 years — I suspect that the spirit, if not the letter, of this agreement will somehow be violated.
But back to the amazing spectacle of the war's opening, when the House voted to cut the benefits of the men and women it praised a few minutes earlier. What that scene demonstrated was the belief of the Republican leadership that if it wraps itself in the flag, and denounces critics as unpatriotic, it can get away with just about anything. And the scary thing is that this belief may be justified.
For the overwhelming political lesson of the last year is that war works — that is, it's an excellent cover for the Republican Party's domestic political agenda. In fact, war works in two ways. The public rallies around the flag, which means the President and his party; and the public's attention is diverted from other issues.
As long as the nation is at war, then, it will be hard to get the public to notice what the flagwavers are doing behind our backs. And it just so happens that the "Bush doctrine," which calls for preventive war against countries that may someday pose a threat, offers the possibility of a series of wars against nasty regimes with weak armies.
Someday the public will figure all this out. But it may be a very long wait.
Originally published in The New York Times, 4.15.03