Smoking Machines, Video Games, and Other Republican Budget Fantasies

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Put down that confounded joystick, you slacker! Photo: Alex Wong/2011 Getty Images

One of the new John Boehner sequestration talking points is that Republicans couldn’t possibly accept any new revenue, even the revenue he was publicly offering two months ago, because there are still wasteful government programs. As Boehner wrote yesterday, “no one should be talking about raising taxes when the government is still paying people to play videogames, giving folks free cellphones, and buying $47,000 cigarette-smoking machines.” Republicans today are repeating the cell-phone-video-game-smoking-machine line today. (“As long as wasteful programs like this exist, it's going to be hard to convince people I represent that we have a revenue problem," said Representative Martha Roby.)

Since Republicans actually seem to have decided to go with this argument, let’s give it some thought.

Does the existence of wasteful government programs mean that we can’t raise any new revenue, even by reducing the wasteful tax loopholes Boehner has been promising to eliminate? Does that prove that the long-term deficit must be closed entirely through expenditure cuts? After all, merely identifying a handful of wasteful programs hardly proves that there is enough waste to cover all the deficit reduction you want.

Second, in point of fact, even the handful of wasteful programs that supposedly justify the no-taxes line aren’t actually wasteful. Take the $47,000 smoking machine. Sound outrageous — government bureaucrats buying themselves an expensive piece of machinery to smoke cigarettes while regular folks like John Boehner have to light up by hand, like a sucker! In fact, it turns out to be a piece of medical research equipment used by the Veteran Administration:

"VA Researchers are using the smoking machine to cause chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) in mice by the same mechanisms by which the disease occurs in Veterans and others who smoke cigarettes," a VA official told HuffPost in an email.

"The cessation of smoking does not curtail the progression of the disease and there is currently no effective therapy for the treatment of the condition," the official said. "Using this mouse model of COPD, VA researchers will test potential new treatments for the disease."

You see, Mr. Speaker, if you want to study the effects of smoking, you could kidnap some unsuspecting person and force-feed him Marlboros. But the scientific community finds this approach unethical, so machines to test the effects of smoking on mice are considered a standard work-around.

Likewise, “paying people to play video games” is not some federal grant to mail checks to good-for-nothing slackers to lounge around playing their newfangled machines while honest God-fearing Americans go to work. It’s a grant from the National Science Foundation to test the hypothesis that some cognitive loss owing to old age can be slowed through certain video games. (“The theory is that the strategy, memory and problem-solving skills necessary for mastering certain games may translate to benefits in the real world, beyond a glowing computer screen.”)

The “giving folks free cell phones” program is real, pretty much. Free phone service for the poor has existed since 1984, and obviously moved from landlines to cell phones, on the theory that a phone is vital for things like being able to contact police or fire departments, get a job, and so on. Recipients get 250 free minutes a month — which, at less than ten minutes a day, doesn’t leave room for lots of chatting about Justin Bieber. The program did have loose eligibility criteria, but they have been tightened. You could debate the merits of subsidized phone ownership, but this program, and the two others, actually disprove Boehner’s point. If this is the worst thing he can dig up in the federal budget, it proves not that Washington is brimming with waste but that it isn’t.

Why have Republicans settled on this utterly inane talking point? A close look at the latest Pew poll shows it’s the only card they have to play in the fiscal showdown. The public opinion landscape is utterly bleak for Boehner. Congress is way less popular than Obama. The Republican Party is way less popular than the Democratic Party. People trust Obama more than Republicans to handle budget issues. They want a mix of revenue and spending cuts. (Even a majority of Republicans reject the cuts-only approach insisted on by GOP leaders.)

The lone bright spot on this desolate landscape is that Americans want spending cuts to account for a larger share of the deficit reduction. Now the question is framed in the most Republican-friendly way. The poll doesn’t ask about raising taxes just on the rich, which is much more popular than generalized tax hikes. It also doesn’t name specific programs like Medicare and Social Security, which Americans resolutely oppose cutting under any circumstances. What Boehner has going for him here is a generalized ignorance about the federal budget. Americans think there’s lots of waste and don’t grasp that balancing the budget through spending cuts would require cutting programs they don’t want to cut. Boehner’s best play is to keep the debate on the level of abstraction, focused on mythical waste.

What his plan doesn’t offer is any real endgame. If — when, really — sequestration begins, you’ll have weapons factories and medical providers losing their paychecks. Boehner doesn’t have an actual plan to balance the budget by making surly video-game players pay for their own damn World of Warcraft. He wants to force Obama to propose cuts to retirement programs without any revenue. He doesn’t have any apparent strategy to achieve this goal. He just has a talking point to try to wave it away.