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Expect big changes if Republicans win back the House

by Mytheos Holt, published

At this point, it is all but guaranteed that Republicans will hold the House of Representatives come the election in November. Commentators from Nate Silver to Jon Stewart to Karl Rove to Rush Limbaugh for once have reached a consensus on this point, and as of now, the only battle being fought is over the size of that upcoming majority. Its existence has long since been conceded as an inevitability.  But what then?

Once the GOP has seized back the mantle of power, what is to come, and how can we know? This is not an idle question, as hostile commentators adore pounding the GOP for its allegedly unspecific election strategy, while friendly commentators suggest that the specifics are either all there, or unnecessary, given the particulars of GOP ideology. In both cases, there are intellectual inconsistencies. One could be forgiven, for instance, for observing that Democrats, at least, are in no position to complain about lack of specifics having campaigned on nothing but “hope,” “change” and other abstract nouns that tested well with focus groups in 2008. Similarly, one could be forgiven for observing that the last time Republicans got elected on a politically vague but comforting bromide (“Compassionate Conservatism”) they ushered in policy which most current leaders of the GOP view as a betrayal of the party’s principles. 

Now, to be fair, asking any major political party to forward policy specifics that are potentially politically inconvenient is a rather tall order. Moreover, it’s not clear that these are the sorts of specifics that any but the most engaged voters are calling for. Whatever the reason for the GOP’s tight-lipped attitude, however, voters should be aware that it has nothing to do with the absence of specific plans on the Right. Rather, the fact that the official GOP has not spoken on the specifics of their plan is evidence of a wider political phenomenon – namely, that while the policy agenda of the Democrats is very much driven by official party organs (and necessarily so, given that Democrats are the party in power), the Republican policy agenda is more likely to be set in the future by the strength of competing factions within both conservative intellectual circles and the party grassroots.  

With that said, it is possible to sketch in broad strokes what the GOP agenda following a victory in 2010 would look like using three documents – the GOP’s by this point infamous “Pledge to America,” the “Roadmap for America” written by GOP Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) and the “Leadership for America Initiatives” advocated by the Heritage Foundation, which is effectively the gatekeeper to conservative policy circles in Washington. In brief, that agenda, which is focused single-mindedly on fostering economic growth and cutting the deficit, would include two major prongs – tax reform and entitlement reform.  

Explaining tax reform is scarcely necessary. The GOP has long had the reduction of Federal taxes as a cornerstone of its agenda, and given the recent flap over the soon-to-expire Bush tax cuts, as well as the fact that the United States has one of the highest capital gains taxes in the world, one can be sure that both of these will be on the proverbial chopping block. This piece of the plan, obviously, is oriented towards economic growth, with a Laffer Curve-driven approach that suggests if oppressively high tax rates are slashed, revenue increases due to the ensuing drive to make more money. Special attention should be paid to the Capital Gains tax, given that everyone from Mitt Romney to Mike Pence to Newt Gingrich has slammed this element of the Federal tax code as something that renders the United States noncompetitive with countries like China (which does not have a Capital Gains tax). It is also a potential area for bipartisan compromise. 

The other piece is more controversial – Democrats have made great hay out of treating Social Security and Medicare as the proverbial third rail of politics. But now, that status is increasingly unsustainable as a matter of simple fiscal reality. If left in their current state, the costs of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security would consume every single cent of Federal tax money by 2052 (according to the Congressional Budget Office), leaving no room for defense spending, education spending, or anything else. 

To solve this problem, one can look primarily at the Heritage Foundation’s recommendations, with the Ryan Roadmap as a potential guide to how these concepts would be rhetorically sold. It should be noted, however, that this piece of the GOP agenda is likely to follow on the heels of tax cuts so as to allow for the economy to recover before proposing solutions that Democrats, at least, view as an obstacle to economic security. 

The big items that Heritage pushes in its policy memos are as follows – a shift to a “defined contribution” model in Medicare (in other words, requiring consumers to invest defined amounts of their money in an account which then pays out an annuity once they become eligible), proposals to allow individuals to choose the option of personal private Social Security accounts (unlike full-scale privatization, this would only make private accounts an option, not mandate them), and changing Medicaid to a genuinely insurance-based program rather than an entitlement. These ideas, while you’re unlikely to hear them on the stump due to their technical and easily twisted nature, would allow for a variety of entitlement reform which narrows the reach of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid to only give care to the genuinely needy, rather than extending it willy nilly.  Moreover, at least one of these ideas – the “defined contribution” model – is the dominant means of offering entitlements in the world today, with the United States’ “defined benefit” model an anomaly.

One final area where voters should expect to see GOP boldness would be in taking on benefits for government workers, a method which has seen success both under New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and under Washington, DC’s dominant education maven, Michelle Rhee. 

In short, it is a testament to the complexity of the GOP’s proposed plan that so many of its specifics defy the typical stump speech model of explanation. Once November rolls around, voters should be ready for a dramatic shift – one that can either leave the country more prosperous and less dependent on government, as its supporters allege, or toss the country deeper into the recession, as its detractors allege. Either way, the country seems ready to take its chances.

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