-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

In my new Verdict column today, I discuss the claims by Republicans that they must stand up for their "principles," which has so far translated into their becoming even more insane about the federal budget.  By contrast, national Republican leaders have recently been toning down the culture-war craziness -- not abandoning it, by any means, but spending less time gay-bashing, and letting the wars over reproductive rights play out at the state level -- and many have even come out in favor of immigration reforms that they would have decried before the 2012 elections as "amnesty."

Where are the principles?  I seem to remember hearing Republicans ask, "What part of 'illegal' don't you understand?"  There is a core principle, they argued, in upholding the rule of law.  Now, however, that principle has given way to the reality that the fast-growing Latino population is turned off by the Republicans, with more than 70% voting for Democrats in 2012.  What part of "unprincipled" don't you understand?

The central argument in my column, however, is that the claims by Republicans that their budget proposals are guided by some high set of principles are difficult to take seriously.  I take direct aim at their claims that they are determined to make children better off (by resisting increases in the national debt), noting that the Republicans actually seem to be perfectly willing to harm children -- that is, children who lost the parental lottery and were not born into wealth -- in order to reduce taxes on the rich.  This "protecting the children and grandchildren" argument is thus clearly not a core principle, because it readily gives way to other policy priorities.

What other principles might be in play?  One argument that Republicans often make is that "debt is bad."  That, however, is not a principle.  It is an assertion that only makes sense if we understand what "bad" means.  Other than the future generations dodge, they have never really explained why debt might be bad.  We get a lot of claims that "we shouldn't borrow money that we don't have," but that merely restates the problem.

Moreover, as plenty of people have noticed, the Republicans do not really seem to have a problem with debt.  Even setting aside the usual (but still important) points about Republicans happily borrowing to pay for wars, prescription drug benefits, and so on, it is obvious that Republicans do not view debt as a bad enough thing to justify paying it off with higher taxes.  Consider this extreme hypothetical: If the Republicans actually succeeded in shrinking the government to the point where its budget was as close to zero as it could possibly be, would they continue to fund the IRS so that it could collect taxes to pay down the existing debt?

And even if one could imagine something like that happening -- or, as a more real-world alternative, running large annual surpluses, with a shrunken-but-still-functioning federal government -- where is the principle that tells us how long that should take?  At this point, after all, we have seen the Republicans pass budget resolutions in 2011 and 2012 written by their budget pseudo-wonk, Paul Ryan, which would have taken decades even to reduce the annual deficit to zero.  That means that the debt would rise every year (requiring, among other things, an increase in the debt ceiling, but I digress).

Now, in response to the beating they took at the polls, the Republicans told Ryan to change his budget to require a balanced budget within ten years.  That, of course, will harm still more children (and many adults).  More to the current point, however, we have never been given even a clue as to why it was principled to propose twenty- to thirty-year paths to balanced budgets before, whereas it is now absolutely required that the budget be balanced in exactly ten years.

Sure enough, it turns out that ten years is not good enough for some of the true believers.  In yesterday's New York Times, there was an amusing op-ed from Georgia Congressman Paul Broun.  Broun is best-known as the guy with a degree in medicine who said that evolution, embryology, and the Big Bang theory are "lies straight from the pit of hell."  Broun, who is planning to run for the Senate, is also bragging that he was the first to call President Obama "a socialist who embraces Marxist-Leninist policies."

According to Broun, Ryan's latest plan is just too wimpy.  Although he claims that everything has to be done NOW, his op-ed does not actually lay out anything close to a comprehensive set of principles, or a way to achieve immediate budget balance.  He trots out the usual anti-Washington arguments, suggesting that the Departments of Energy and Education are both places where money is wasted on federal bureaucrats' salaries.  (Did you know that Education Department employees have an average salary of $103,000, more than double the national average for teachers!?  Does it strike you that this is a meaningless statistic?)  He also complains that taxpayers have lost "millions of dollars" (yes, that is with an "m") because of Energy Department programs.

Broun's melange of policy suggestions, in fact, boils down to the familiar argument that much of what the federal government is doing should be done at the state level.  He argues that turning Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program into block-granted state-run programs "would save approximately $2 trillion over 10 years by capping federal funding at 2012 levels for the next 10 years and giving states an incentive to seek out and eliminate waste, fraud and abuse. The government agency closest to the consumer can most efficiently manage taxpayer dollars."  That last claim is, of course, utterly belied by evidence.  Corruption at the state and local levels is endemic, and proximity makes it more difficult, not easier, to prosecute waste, fraud, and abuse.

But again, where is the principled argument that the federal government must run a balanced budget right away?  And where is the plan actually to do so?  At most, Broun offers warmed-over claims about overpaid bureaucrats and the virtues of local control.  The big principle, apparently, is that the federal government is bad and that state governments are good.  Except that state governments would be bad if they spent money on things that Broun does not like.  And what he and his colleagues do not like, as I discussed in my Verdict column, is spending on programs that help people when they need help.  Some principle.