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House Republicans: How Low Can They Go?

How extreme has the House Republican base become? Pretty extreme, I'd say, given that they think House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan is insufficiently serious about shrinking government.

As you may recall, Ryan's big contribution to the political debate is his Roadmap for America's Future--a proposal for the federal budget that would eviscerate government spending and effectively end Medicare as we know it. But, now that Ryan is chairman of the Budget Committee, he can't simply issue policy papers and pithy slogans. He has to produce real legislation that will have very real policy effects and very real political consequences. 

During the 2010 congressional campaign, Ryan and the rest of the Republican leadership pledged to find $100 billion in specific spending cuts for the next year. Now the Republican base is holding party leaders to a literal interpretation promise. And that's causing problems.

To review the situation: The federal government is presently financing its operations through short-term appropriations that will expire at the beginning of March. Before Congress can debate what to do in fiscal year 2012, it must pass spending bills that get government through the rest of the 2011 fiscal year, which ends in September,.

Since that's only about half a year, Ryan and the rest of the Republican leadership originally said it wasn't essential they actually find $100 billion in cuts right away. They suggested it would be enough to enact just $74 billion in reductions. The Tea Party and other extremists didn't agree, in part because some of those cuts were illusory. These activists and operatives made it clear they want the party to slash $100 billion from the budget now. Rank-and-file House Republicans, many of them freshmen whom the Tea Party helped elect, made the same demand.

OK, the leadership said. They went back to work and, late this week, came forward with a plan that would deliver an additional $26 billion in cuts. Apparently this, too, is too meek for the Tea Party crowd, because some of the cuts still look fishy and because some of the money comes from the Pentagon. The whole point, these critics from the right stress, is to cut $100 billion in non-defense spending.

Here's how the Washington Post's Lori Montgomery describes the political situation: 

The tension playing out on Capitol Hill was evident Wednesday night when Ryan found himself on the defensive in a conference call with tea party activists. One caller, Tamara Colbert, who heads the California-based Pasadena Patriots, asked Ryan why the GOP had dropped its $100 billion pledge.
"What we need is for our representatives to stand up and have the guts to risk everything," said Colbert, who works closely with American Solutions, the political organization run by former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) and the sponsor of the conference call.
Ryan tried to walk Colbert through the arcane math, then caught himself. "It just took me, like, five minutes to explain that," he said. "That's what's so frustrating about this issue."

Yes, governing is hard, isn't it Congressman Ryan?

Of course, the cuts that Republican leaders unveiled on Wednesday and that Ryan is trying to defend are hardly modest. (As Ezra Klein noted a few days ago, you can't grasp the impact of these cuts unless you extrapolate the numbers to what they'd mean annually.) The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities provided a chart detailing just how steep the reductions would be:

The reductions in that chart might not line up to the specifics that the Republicans unveil next week; some agencies could be in store for bigger cuts and some agencies could be in for smaller ones. But they give you some sense of the magnitudes involved. And don't forget that these are more than abstract numbers.

If they're cutting the FDA and Agriculture budgets by a quarter, for example, that likely means fewer inspectors to keep your food safe. If they're cutting Education Department funds by 12 percent, that probably means an even bigger squeeze on the public schools. Reducing funds for Housing and Urban Development and Transportation by a quarter? I imagine that would many fewer housing vouchers, not to mention lower subsidies for buses and subways. 

You know what's even crazier than these harsh reductions? The fact that the Republican base thinks they're not harsh enough.