EDITORIAL: Opportunity for Kevin McCarthy

A new majority leader won’t resolve the Republican truth deficit

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House Republicans gathered in the bowels of the Capitol on Thursday to select a new majority leader. Many hoped and the naive expected that the stunning defeat of Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia would bring in bold new leadership. But this changing of the old guard is not likely to make a dime’s worth of difference.

Rep. Kevin McCarthy, Thursday’s victor, had the race sown up before it was called. As majority whip, it was his job to count votes and enforce party discipline. Worthy alternatives for the vacant leadership post, such as Rep. Jeb Hensarling of Texas, the Financial Services Committee chairman, or Rep. Raul Labrador of Idaho, never had a realistic shot because Mr. McCarthy had the votes in his pocket before the others had a chance to pick up the telephone to make their first calls.

Mr. McCarthy will trade his first-floor Capitol office without a view for spacious third-floor digs with a panorama of the National Mall at his feet. That’s about the full extent of change on Capitol Hill.

If he really wants to make a difference, he could persuade the leadership team to impose truthfulness in budgeting. Every year, like clockwork, Congress faces an “unprecedented crisis,” and it’s always the crisis of the years before.

This week the Highway Trust Fund is said to be running out of money, and unless the gasoline tax is raised, and right now, work on tunnels and bridges will come to a halt. America’s critical infrastructure will crumble. Grass will shrivel, the creek will run dry, dogs will bark, cats will shriek and mayhem will follow.

This false sense of urgency is manufactured every time Congress and the White House must strike a bargain on how to pay for government. Every year it’s taxpayers who take the licking. The most recent “bargain” was a budget-breaking total victory for President Obama.

The House Republican leaders sowed the seeds of demise by breaking their promise to use honest accounting methods familiar to everyone working out the family budget on the kitchen table. In Washington, this goes by the name of “zero baseline budgeting.”

Republicans promised to implement zero baseline budgeting as part of the famous Contract with America in 1994, promising that the days of “dishonest budgeting” were over. Three years later, they were fighting President Bill Clinton and brought the familiar smoke and mirrors down from the attic. Republicans touted slowing down the rate of spending as “cuts.” But spending went up. This gimmick goes by the name of “baseline budgeting.”

Baseline budgeting cedes the rhetorical advantage to big spenders like Barack Obama. He can shed big, beautiful tears over agency budgets “slashed to the bone,” knowing that such “slashes” are pure bunk, and that federal spending will soar, as always.

When John A. Boehner took the speaker’s gavel in 2011 he never bothered with truth in budgeting. He allowed the Appropriations Committee to spread phony claims of spending reduction so his colleagues could go home to boast of phantom “cuts.”

There’s a real cost in the failure to cut spending. When Mr. Obama took office, the national debt was $10.6 trillion. It’s $17.6 trillion today. (That’s “trillion,” with a T.) The difference, in kitchen table terms, is that every household has a $60,750 share of the government debt — every dollar of which was spent by Mr. Obama. The monthly payment for “hope and change” and “leading from behind” is $935 per household, more than a monthly car payment or even a cell phone or cable-TV bill.

Unless Mr. McCarthy can persuade his leadership colleagues to change the terms of the debate and introduce honest budget numbers, we’ll all owe an additional $29,000 before Mr. Obama takes the night train back to Chicago. Winning votes in a leadership race is easy. Standing up to the status quo is difficult. Only Mr. McCarthy can prove he’s more than the distinction without a difference.

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