An Observation on the State of the Debate over Fiscal Policy

Instead of decades-old retreads like talking about abolishing the Department of Education, it would be nice if we had a real debate about the fiscal circumstances in the country.

I keep seeing campaign commercials/campaigning that references the Department of Education as an example of how to be fiscally responsible (i.e., by abolishing it).  The proximate cause of this post is a commercial from AL-02 against Republican Martha Roby (who is challenging incumbent Blue Dog Democracy Bobby Bright).  In the commercial Roby talks about abolishing the Department of Education and the commercial indicates horror at the notion.  However, I have heard/read multiple references to the Department during the campaign.

This notion dates back to the 1980 campaign and Reagan’s promise to dismantled the Department after Carter had split Housing, Education Welfare into ED (Education), and HHS (Health and Human Services).   Reagan was unable to accomplish this feat, yet it has remained something of a cause célèbre amongst conservatives.  On balance this feels like a tired retread rather than innovative thinking on the part of fiscal conservatives.

Further, it is one thing to make ED a non-cabinet level bureaucracy, yet another to repeal No Child Left Behind as well as to reverse almost five decades of federal monies going to K-12 (not to mention dismantling the student loan program).  Is there political will to make such moves?  I have sincere doubts.

Indeed, I don’t see any of that happening and so find this to be part of the ongoing nonsense that masquerades as fiscal conservatism—i.e., an utterly unserious approach to the issue.  This is the kind of thing that makes it very difficult to take claims about taxing and spending seriously because it is nothing more than retread claims from the past that have no serious chance of success.  For a specific example, see Doug Mataconis’ post on Carly Fiorina from last week (which strikes me as representative of the quality of the debate).

I see very little in the way of real, sustainable and politically viable options from the GOP.  Instead, I see unrealistic claims about tax cuts, vague statements about spending cuts, and politically unviable notions about the future direction of public policy.  Calling for tax cuts and fantastical (i.e., radically unrealistic, if not ahistorical) application of the Tenth Amendment don’t qualify as serious discourse (even if it is good campaign fodder).

It will be interesting to see what kinds of actual proposals come out of a Republican controlled House (if not Senate as well) starting in January.  Let’s say I have my doubts about serious or innovative proposals.  Further, the degree to which this election will actually be a mandate for such proposals is also a rather big question.

Sure, people want tax cuts, spending cuts and “fiscal responsibility”—the problem remains, however, that there is a serious lack of consensus as to what that actually means.  Worse, the places where seriousness is needed (Medicare, social security, the defense budget—not to mention our general defense philosophy) are all areas that are politically difficult to manipulate.

And I recognize that these are not new insights—but they bear repeating because despite the fact that such observations have been made constantly by any number of persons, the truth they contain are not penetrating the overall discourse.

One thing that has to be understood in all of this:  the reason why politicians will not address the truly hard questions is because they know voters don’t want to hear them.  And that is the fundamental issue.  One can argue all day long about elite in Washington or out of touch politicians, but the bottom line is that said politicians are quite aware of the public views on these issues—even if the public is often in denial on them.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2010, Democracy, Taxes, US Politics, , , , , , , , , ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. Dave Schuler says:

    Do they plan to repeal Title I?

  2. Mithras says:

    They’d really like to repeal Title IX. That’s pretty viable politically, since most men (who don’t have daughters) would be all for it and the women who vote Republican now wouldn’t care.

  3. john personna says:

    Title IX just needs to be reinterpreted, to say that funding of extra-cirricular activities should be done on a cost-benefit basis, and without bias for races, sex, blah, blah blah

    I think in many case popular “mixed” activities like marching band competitions are a big money sink.

  4. steve says:

    The CBO has been making projections for years about the debt going out of control. It has always been mostly centered on Medicare/Medicaid spending. It is ignored when Republicans are in office, or made worse as in the case of Medicare Part D. When Democrats are in office it is ignored, or as in the case of the ACA, a half hearted attempt is made at bringing down costs.

    My gut feeling is that we will not see serious attempts at spending cuts until it gets worse. At best, we might see some minor cosmetic proposals like cutting out some education programs or the NEA.