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The Republican Diet: Lots of Ice Cream

A string of recent statements by Republican elected officials have offered multiple insights into the party's priorities. For the moment, though, consider what those statements reveal--or, I should say, confirm--about the party's supposed commitment to fiscal responsibility.

To review the relevant history: Early in the year, leaders of the Democratic Party called for a new stimulus program--a combination of public works spending, aid to states, and other measures that, they said, would create jobs and strengthen the weak recovery. President Obama eventually came forth with a package of that would have cost the federal treasury more than than $200 billion.

The Republicans rejected this idea flatly, saying (among other things) that the country couldn't afford such to keep running such high deficits.

OK, Democrats said. How about some smaller programs? Just before the July 4th recess, Senate Democratic leaders tried to pass a $33 billion bill focusing on unemployment benefits only. The federal government has done this many times before, during downturns, in part because unemployment benefits give a real boost to the economy. (Unemployed workers tend to spend the money right away, because they need it just to cover essentials like food and rent.) Surely that would be ok.

Nope, Republican leaders said. Even $33 billion in new deficit spending is too much. The country can't afford it.

Then, a few days ago, Judd Gregg, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, and Eric Cantor, minority whip in the House, appeared on CNBC. When asked about the economy, the two proposed extending the Bush tax cuts that are set to expire at the end of this year. Not some of them, mind you. All of them. (A Gregg spokesperson later told me he was speaking only "generally," about the importance of the tax cuts. I'm not sure what that means, but full extension of the tax cuts has long been GOP dogma.)

What would extending all the Bush tax cuts mean, in dollar terms? According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which quickly ran some numbers at my request, extension would raise the deficit about $3.7 trillion--roughly $820 billion more than extending only the middle class tax cuts, as Democrats have proposed.

Numbers like this make people's eyes glaze over. A billion here, a trillion there. What's the difference? So maybe a more concrete comparison will help.

Rejecting a $33 billion proposal, because of its alleged impact on the deficit, and then embracing an $820 billion one is a bit like a dieter passing on a plain baked potato


...and then gorging on four pints of Ben & Jerry's Chocolate Fudge Brownie Ice Cream...


The potato, you see, has about 160 calories, while four pints of Ben and Jerry's Chocolate Fudge Brownie has about 4000. And that probably understates the comparison, since the Democrats want to enact a series of one-time spending measures. The Republicans, presumably, want to extend the Bush tax cuts permanently. 

Which is fine, if the overriding Republican goal is simply to shrink the size of the government. That's more or less what  Arizona Senator Jon Kyl said this weekend on Fox News. As my colleague Jon Chait writes, it was a refreshing example of near-honesty.

But Republicans voting against unemployment benefits and other anti-recession measures say they are doing so because they care about balancing the governments' books. If you believed that claim before--and, admittedly, I'm not sure how you could have--then you certainly shouldn't now.