How many crazy things is it possible to say and still win a political debate?
You may think I’m talking about last week’s infamous showdown between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama. But I’m really talking about Steve Daines, the Republican candidate for the U.S. House who debated Democrat Kim Gillan here last week.
I imagine that Mr. Daines won the debate. He seemed relaxed and articulate. He patiently laid out the case that his solid business background was just what Montana needs to right the federal ship. On Sunday, in an editorial too tedious to read to the end, he won the endorsement of The Billings Gazette.
And he was absolutely bonkers. If Mr. Daines ran his business the way he proposes to run the country, then he would make the Outpost look like a titan of corporate oligarchy.
I’m not talking about the usual campaign exaggerations. Mr. Daines said, for example, that spending in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has increased 131 percent since 2008. He apparently cribbed that number from U.S. Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, who derived it in 2010 by lumping in stimulus spending with annual outlays.
It’s technically accurate, but any good businessman would know better than to confuse one-time expenses with ongoing costs. As a practical matter, PolitiFact rated the statistic as false. Mr. Daines should have, too.
He also said that the Corette coal-fired plant in Billings was closing because of the expense of new environmental regulations. It’s true that PPL Montana officials cited regulations in their announcement that the plant would close.
But it’s also true that weak market conditions had a lot to do with the closing. As PPL Corp. put it in a filing this summer with the Securities and Exchange Commission, “Current depressed wholesale market prices for electricity and natural gas have resulted from general weak economic conditions and other factors, including the impact of expanded domestic shale gas development. As a result of these factors, PPL Energy Supply has experienced a shift in the dispatching of its competitive generation from coal-fired to combined-cycle gas-fired generation.”
It’s also true that failing to regulate has costs. A study commissioned by the nonprofit Clean Air Task Force in 2010 estimated that fine particle pollution from the Corette Plant killed six Montanans a year. The EPA estimates the new rules will provide up to $13 in health benefits for every dollar spent on pollution controls. While those figures are disputed, Mr. Daines did not appear to consider them in his analysis, scarcely a businesslike approach.
But that’s all just standard political rhetoric. What boggled my mind was his response to a question about raising the national debt ceiling, which is likely to be necessary early next year.
Mr. Daines said, “I would like to see a Balanced Budget Amendment put in place as a condition for any kind of increase in the debt ceiling because, as we know, in Washington they just punt and they go back home. We can’t keep raising the debt ceiling. We need to put teeth - say that we insist on a balanced budget before we raise the debt ever again.”
That’s just madness. Under the most optimistic scenarios, it will be years before this country sees a balanced budget. Even the budget plan of vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan, a noted fiscal hawk, wouldn’t bring the budget into balance for decades, if then.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney might never balance the budget at all. He has acknowledged that the drastic cuts needed to balance the budget would be unwise when the economy is struggling. And his tax plan calls for massive tax cuts that will be paid for by unspecified – because politically unpopular – cuts in loopholes and deductions.
At the same time, he would increase spending on defense, roll back Medicare savings included in the Affordable Care Act and somehow manage to miraculously provide insurance for people with pre-existing conditions. All of that would be paid for by such politically bold cuts as slashing funding for public broadcasting, a savings of one-tenth of 1 percent of the federal budget.
As a good Republican soldier, Mr. Daines presumably would go along with these plans. But he can’t do that without raising the debt ceiling. Otherwise, nearly the entire government shuts down.
It’s like a business that tries to borrow more money by telling a banker that it will pay the money back with savings from payments it will refuse to make on past borrowing.
It’s actually worse than that. Like nearly all House Republicans, Mr. Daines has signed Grover Norquist’s Taxpayer Protection Pledge, which obliges him to “oppose any and all efforts to increase the marginal income tax rate for individuals and business; and to oppose any net reduction or elimination of deductions and credits, unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates.”
The Tax Policy Center has estimated that Mr. Romney’s tax plan won’t work without increasing taxes on the middle class. Mr. Romney disputes that, of course, but he could be wrong. If he is, then Republicans who supported his tax plan would violate their pledge.
Worse, they wouldn’t be able to conclude that the plan was a bad idea, after all, and roll back Mr. Romney’s tax cuts. That would raise marginal tax rates.
So Mr. Daines could leave us trapped with unbalanced budgets, no way to raise the debt ceiling to pay our bills, and no way to fix the problem without booting Mr. Norquist’s adherents out of office.
No wonder that when Mr. Romney called for eliminating federal funding for public broadcasting, he singled out “Sesame Street.” That popular show is noted for teaching children fundamental literacy and critical thinking skills, the kind they will need later on when they are asked to vote for politicians who are selling them a bill of goods.