112th Congress Preview, Part 2

| Fri Oct. 8, 2010 1:21 PM EDT

With the tea partiers snapping at their heels, Republicans will have to get serious about deficit cutting if they take over Congress in November. Right? No more smoke and mirrors anymore. The ravenous horde won't stand for it.

Maybe. But Jonathan Bernstein suggests three ways the GOP may try to placate the mob:

(1) Hire someone at CBO who will score tax cuts as massive revenue sources. Hey, look, the deficit is falling!

(2) Gotta have a gimmick — introduce some sort of auto-cut procedure, similar to the old Gramm-Rudman structure; make sure that it won't actually kick in until some point in the future (or with a divided Congress, let the Senate kill it). Talk a lot about the Balanced Budget Constitutional Amendment. Hold lots of votes on the Balanced Budget Constitutional Amendment. Repeat that deficits keep going up because the Democrats are blocking the Amendment, or the new absolutely necessary budget procedures.

(3) Eliminate earmarks. Talk a whole lot about eliminating earmarks. Claim that you're slashing spending — we eliminated earmarks! Never use the word "deficit" again. Hope no one notices.

I was pondering this the other day and #2 and #3 both crossed my mind in slightly different form. I missed #1, which I suppose is a possibility if Republicans take over both the House and the Senate. It might be a little too raw, though, even for them.

Beyond that, I guess I ended up with a different take: I don't think tea partiers really care about deficits. It's just the most useful cudgel at hand right now. So sure, Republicans will come up with a gimmick or two, but mainly this will boil down to a few high-profile fights over a few specific expenditures. There's no telling what they'll be, except that they'll almost certainly be (a) trivial, (b) aimed at programs Democrats hold dear, and (c) simple enough to turn into a shouting match easily. But trivial or not, it will likely end up in a dramatic, TV-worthy government shutdown. This will show that GOP hearts are in the right place, and if it doesn't actually have any serious effect on the deficit no one will really care. At least we're fighting to take our country back!

In fact, I'm willing to predict right now that sometime next year Fox News will decide with whiplash-inducing speed that deficits aren't really very newsworthy anymore. Why? Because it will simply be impossible to pretend that the issues at stake are anywhere near big enough to make a real difference in the deficit, and in any case, they're going to be far more interested in promoting tax cuts for the rich. So instead of scary deficit charts, it's going to be 24/7 yammering about how we need to motivate our Wall Street billionaires hardworking entrepreneurs to work harder by cutting their taxes. Should be loads of fun.