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Would it be smart and appropriate for Democrats to stop explaining how to fund new policy proposals?

3 min read

My answer is Yes.  Every time Democrats roll out a proposal to reform health insurance, or reduce education debt, or expand access to pre-school, or invest in infrastructure,  or fund education, etc., there is an expectation that the Democrats will explain — in the weeds and with rough mathematical credibility — “how they will pay for it?”    The Democratic proposal is then discussed, and beat up, solely in terms of its taxation/funding element.

Why do Democrats need to do this?  Republicans are never asked how they will pay for their policy preferences, particularly their tax cuts and military spending.  

I don’t want this to be a trite observation because this dynamic has become outlandish and debilitating to the agenda of only one of two political parties.

If asked, why can’t Democrats say that this or that policy is the right thing to do, and we will pay for it the same way we pay for tax cuts?  Or the military? Or any other general program?  You know, we will pay for it out of general revenues.  Or deficit spending. Or there will be tax increases (or spending cuts) to pay for everything, not just this specific Dem program.  In case anybody hasn't noticed, we are already running a large deficit.  If there are tax increases, or cuts to military spending, it won’t just be to pay for some Democratic proposal; it will be to pay for everything (partially).

I think two trends have conflated to place Democratic policies alone in a box.  One, Democrats have tried to be the more responsible, transparent party — spelling out policy details in a “good government” way.  Two, many Democratic policies like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, ACA, unemployment insurance, disability insurance, etc. have all been enacted with an associated, “dedicated” tax — even though all of the programs (except for Social Security to date) are actually funded out of the general revenues and the dedicated Social Security tax revenues have been raided to fund general expenditures gutted by Republican tax breaks.

Out of this failed history (excluding Social Security) Democrats have somehow allowed themselves to be boxed into the notion that every single Democratic program alone must be associated with a dedicated, or at least identified, tax.  Republican policies and preferences?  They are free-floating and unaccountable.

This is not a glib observation.  It is a huge and unjust millstone on progressive policies, and an absurd outcome that Republicans surely and gleefully must congratulate themselves for achieving.  Imagine:   everything you want to do is cost-free and everything your opponents want to do must carry an explicit (and funded) price tag.  

Should we just go along with this?  Surely not. 

I believe the answer is that Democrats should explain the financing of any new, major piece of social legislation (such as the initial ACA or a new Medicare-for-All) because that should be part of the winning political obligation of enacting  an ambitious, massive plan that affects a large segment of the economy.  Explaining the financing in these circumstances would actually help win the debate, and be a part of our tradition of responsible policy making.

But the rest?  Infrastructure spending?  Tweaks to the ACA?  Improving Social Security? Investments in clean energy, education or safety net spending?  No way.  These are policy decisions that (putting aside merit arguments) are on par with every other government policy decision, including Republican tax cuts, deregulation and military spending.  It is not just unfair, but destructive to our side, to think that only Democrats should have to have a paycheck/W-2 line item for every Democratic proposed policy.

So, to answer my own question — yes, I think it would be smart and just for Democrats to escape this trap.  It won't happen overnight but that is no reason not to begin now to right this serious imbalance in policy discussion and outcomes.  The stakes are too high, and the current framing is too dishonest and debilitating.  The better way:

Q.  How will you pay for universal pre-K?  A.  The same way we pay for the F-35 fighter jet program. Q.  Won’t you need to raise taxes?  A.  Maybe. Depends I guess on how important we value the F-35 program.  Q.  Are you proposing that we cut military spending for a universal pre-K program?  A.  No,  I favor both programs . . . . 

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