When Are We Going to Have a Real Discussion About the Deficit?

Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) is getting specific about what the hostage takers Republicans want in exchange for raising the debt ceiling.

Minority Whip Jon Kyl (Ariz.) told reporters that Republicans want $2.5 trillion in budget savings in exchange for voting to raise the country's $14.3 trillion borrowing limit through the end of next year.

"You'd have to do about $2.4 trillion in debt ceiling," Kyl said, "which means you'd have to be about $2 1/2 trillion — at a minimum — in savings."

Of course, this isn't the first time we've heard this line. Speaking at the Economic Club of New York last month, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) said pretty much the same thing. But according to the WaPo piece referenced above, Kyl's number is noteworthy because it indicates that Republican leadership is settling on a debt ceiling level that will obviate the need to raise it again before the next election. Actually, what's notable is the contention offered in the opening paragraph of the story: Kyl's statement is "the most specific outline of the party's demands thus far."

We're already almost a month past hitting the debt ceiling, and the Republicans have yet to say what services exactly that the federal government provides that we should go without. Much to the dismay of spending cutters in Washington, the fight over federal spending is not about arithmetic (i.e. what gets added and what gets subtracted), it's about what the federal government should stop doing. It's dismaying because, when asked, voters don't want cuts to most of the stuff Republicans want to cut (education, health care, aid to low-income families, environmental protection).

Starting with an arbitrary number and then reducing spending by that amount is backward. Instead, those who want to cut federal spending should come up with a laundry list of all the stuff that they think the federal government should quit doing, and let those service reductions become the debt ceiling ransom deal. What should the government quit providing?

  • Safeguards for clean air and water?
  • Weather predictions and storm warnings?
  • Aid to victims of natural disasters?
  • Protection of the food supply?
  • Services for veterans
  • Enforcing safety standards for consumer products?
  • Federal spending data?
  • Oversight of the broadcast spectrum?
  • Terrorism and crime prevention?
  • Assistance to victims of the worst economy since the Great Depression?
  • Aid to local and state governments to hire fire and police protection?
  • College loans?
  • Dislocated worker training?
  • Research to cure diseases?
  • Nutrition programs that feed children in low-income families?
  • Preservation of natural treasures?
  • Road and bridge maintenance?
  • Construction and maintenance of river levies?
  • Prosecution of federal crimes?
  • Collection of taxes from tax cheats?

Two-and-a-half trillion dollars worth of service reductions is a lot of service reductions—reductions that will be felt by pretty much every American and for some, quite deeply. Budget-cutting Republicans (and Democrats) should start telling us exactly which services represent "out of control federal spending," so we can have a real debate about the federal budget deficit.

Image by Flickr user @mjb used under a Creative Commons license.

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