In the Nation's Interest

The Ongoing Federal Budget Debate: A Pocket Guide for Hawk Watchers

Last week my CED colleague, Joe Minarik, explained this year’s major federal budget issues as a three-act Shakespearean play (a tragedy, for sure).  This week instead of a literature class, I thought I’d provide a little zoology lesson on the creatures—and more (species) specifically, the different “hawks”—who are most involved in the budget debates.

Identifying the Different Types of Hawks:

Journalists have been highlighting the battles within the Republican Party between:

• The “deficit hawks” –who want greater deficit reduction and more fundamental spending and tax reforms, and who dislike budget “gimmicks” (provisions that are deemed fiscally responsible only because of a technicality).

• The “defense hawks” –who want more defense spending than the levels currently allowed under the spending caps that the deficit hawks put in place in the Budget Control Act of 2011.

But there are some other “hawks” in the budget wilderness you might not have heard of—for example: 

• The bipartisan “doc fix hawks” –who want to permanently avoid cuts to payments to doctors via Medicare’s “Sustainable Growth Rate” (SGR), and who, by the way, just enjoyed a resounding “win” over the deficit hawks by a score of 141 (billion) to 73 (billion).  (The Congressional Budget Office estimated that the $214 billion bill would add $141 billion to the 10-year budget deficit; with $73 billion of the gross cost offset with a mix of payment reductions and premium increases.)

• The Democratic “redistribution hawks” –who want to raise taxes on the rich to support greater public non-defense spending and President Obama’s “middle-class economics” agenda.

• The Republican “supply-side hawks” –who take the polar opposite position by advocating for a budget that—as Greg Sargent describes it—“is all about getting government out of the way so economic opportunity can flourish.”

Hawk Behaviors to Watch For:

Puffed up chests as policymakers and candidates spout broad, superficial rhetoric much more than detailed, reasoned substance—for example, arguing to cut “wasteful” spending or to close (wasteful and unfair sounding) “loopholes” in the tax system, rather than identifying policy specifics that would make the losses and (politically-powerful) losers obvious.

Enemy-seeking/“warhawk” behavior where the hawks look for other kinds of hawks to fight and blame so they don’t have to do unpopular things. Now that the Rs are in charge, do they really want to cut Medicare?  Just like when the Ds were in charge in Congress, did they really want to raise taxes (even by letting the Rs’ tax cuts expire)?  It’s quite convenient when you can say you’re not making the economically wise but politically difficult choices just because the other side won’t let you.  Being in charge and fully accountable can confront you with an inconvenient truth—and the need to put someone else’s hard-earned money where your mouth (er, beak) has been.

Mutual back scratching/preening as “compromise” rather than making the mutual sacrifices which are necessary to reduce the deficit.  The traditional battles between Rs and Ds on fiscal policy issues tend to work out this way:  the Rs agree to preserve higher spending in exchange for Ds agreeing to preserve lower taxes, rather than Rs giving up some of their tax cuts in exchange for Ds giving up some spending.  This week’s House Republican version of the mutual preening between the deficit hawks and the defense hawks was using the “Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO)” fund to boost defense spending without it counting as higher spending and a violation of the budget caps.  It’s just like having their (rodent?) cake and eating it, too.

Aimless, erratic flight patterns where the hawks end up circling or veering off course as they position themselves—like the argument that if something is “important” to do, policymakers shouldn’t have to offset its cost, when, ironically, making it (seem) free—by deficit-financing it—insures that it will pass Congress even if it’s actually of very low value relative to (i.e., not worth) its true cost. 

So are hawks of any sort really the best qualified creatures to make federal budget policy?  Stay tuned for a future blog post urging for more puppies and sea otters to get involved.  (Just kidding.)

Diane Lim is Vice President for Economic Research at the Committee for Economic Development. Image: a variety of some presidential-hopeful-senator (or former-senator) hawks (photo of GOP senators from Politico story); a variety of some (just ordinary) hawks.