How The “Magic Asterisk” Caused The Shutdown

Dave Johnson

It finally came time for Republicans to put up or shut up. Instead they’re shutting down.

Never mind Obamacare; that’s just a mask for a huge Republican failure to govern. If you want to understand how we got to the point of a government shutdown, ask any Republican exactly what they would cut from the budget, and ask them to give actual dollar amounts of how much money that would “save.”

The current shutdown fight is over passing a “continuing resolution” (CR). Do you know what a continuing resolution is? It is what Congress uses when they haven’t passed an actual budget. It is a resolution to continue operating the government at existing spending levels, under existing policies.

And why hasn’t the Congress passed a budget? I’m glad you asked me that question.

Republican Budget Lies

Under President Reagan, Republicans cut taxes on the rich, and when huge deficits resulted (as intended), they said, “We have a spending problem, and we have to cut government.”

Ever since then, the propaganda has been flowing, 24/7/365: government spends too much, is too big, waste-fraud-and-abuse, is bankrupting us, etc. But they never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever will tell you what they would cut and by how much. Ever.

If pressed, they’ll say “cut foreign aid.”

Again, Republicans will always, always, always tell people that government spending needs to be cut. And Republicans will never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever tell people exactly what they would cut, and by how much.

Because they understand that if people knew what they are really talking about cutting, no one would ever vote for another Republican again.

The Magic Asterisk

THIS year, however, it finally, finally came to be “put up or shut up” time. The Republicans in the House had to actually pass a budget that said what and how much they would cut. Instead, however, they didn’t put up and are shutting down.

You might remember that Republicans passed something called the “Ryan budget.” This was a budget outline that dramatically cut the federal budget, but without specifics. Economist Paul Krugman wrote repeatedly about the Ryan plan, explaining how it relied on a “magic asterisk.” This is an asterisk they insert, and below they write that specific cuts will be named later.

For example, Krugman, in “Big Fiscal Phonies,” writes:

…once you strip out Mr. Ryan’s “magic asterisks” — claims that he will somehow increase revenues and cut spending in ways that he refuses to specify — what you’re left with are plans that would increase, not reduce, federal debt.

Later, Krugman wrote in “What’s In The Ryan Plan?“:

Yet Ryan claims a big deficit reduction, via two big “magic asterisks”. First, he insists that the tax cuts won’t reduce revenue, because they’ll be offset with unspecified “base-broadening”. [. . .] Second, there are large assumed cuts in discretionary spending relative to current policy. [. . .] all of the alleged deficit reduction comes from revenue and spending numbers that are simply asserted, not the result of any policies actually described in the “plan”. [. . .] All the claims of major deficit reduction therefore rest on the magic asterisks. In that sense, this isn’t even a plan, it’s just a set of assertions.

Put Up Or Shut Up Time

This Republican budget outline was then sent to the various House committees and they were charged with coming up with specific cuts. It was finally put up or shut up time.

So what happened?

In “Republicans Choose (More) Vacation Over Governing,” I wrote about what happened in one instance of a committee having to specify what to cut and by how much.

This week was put up or shut up time for Republicans. After decades demanding unspecified budget cuts they finally had to put their vote where their budget outline was. So what did they do? They are taking a 40th vote on repealing Obamacare and then heading home for five weeks vacation. This is who they are.

The House Republican leadership withdrew its own THUD bill – Transportation, Housing and Urban Development – because the cuts in the bill were just too much for members to stomach. They had to vote to put actual numbers on their eternal promises to cut, cut, cut, and they couldn’t even stomach it themselves.

What about Tuesday’s shutdown? I wrote at the time, “When they return in the fall it looks like they will try to divert attention from their failure to come up with specific cuts by passing something that Democrats cannot accept and the President will veto, then shut the government down and try to blame Democrats.”

And here we are.

It was put up or shut up time, and they instead decided to shut down. Obamacare is just a mask for what is happening here.

Government Spending

In a democracy, isn’t the definition of “government spending” the things that We the People decide to do that make our lives better?

Conservatives say government makes us “dependent” and not “self-reliant.” Does bringing water to our houses make us “dependent” and less self-reliant on going down to the stream with a couple of buckets, or does it just make our lives better? Does a police force and courts make us “dependent” on not carrying a sword and a big club around with us, or does it just make our lives better?

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