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Commentary: Boehner's bumper-sticker politics is irresponsible

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WASHINGTON -- There are times when I flirt with the notion that the country would be better off with divided government.

If Republicans took control, say, of the House, there would be pressure on both parties to behave more responsibly. The GOP would be pushed to stop carping and posturing, and start governing. Democrats would have political cover to make hard choices on entitlement spending, taxes and the like. As every politician knows, bipartisan cliff-jumping is a safer sport than going solo.

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That's the theory. Then there's John Boehner.

The man who would be speaker outlined his agenda Tuesday in a speech to the City Club of Cleveland -- economic policy reduced to, literally, five easy tweets. The Ohio Republican offered up a depressing blend of tired ideas, tired-er one-liners ("We've tried 19 months of government-as-community organizer") and cheap attacks. The cheapest: calling for the firing of Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and economic adviser Larry Summers.

Boehner said recently that House Republicans would spend August listening to voters before announcing an agenda. Judging from Boehner's speech, they mostly listened to pollsters, whose big idea apparently was to say "job-killing" as often as possible.

Twelve times, actually. As in "job-killing tax hikes," "job-killing bills," "job-killing agenda," "job-killing federal regulations." This is bumper-sticker politics, not a real economic plan. I've been skeptical that Democrats would get much political traction with their argument that the Republican agenda is just George W. Bush recycled, but speeches like Boehner's make me rethink.

Let's take Boehner's prescriptions seriously for a moment. Dispense with the most obviously political parts -- firing the economic team, as if that would change the underlying policy. Leave out, also, the phony controversy. Boehner denounced an obscure provision of the health care law that requires businesses to report expenditures greater than $600. It was a good idea -- cracking down on tax cheats -- poorly executed. Both sides want to change it.

And forget the Republican's favorite legislative bogeymen -- measures to enact cap-and-trade, or to make it easier for unions to organize. Those aren't likely to pass.

So the Boehner plan boils down to the internally inconsistent demands that the president forswear any plan to increase taxes during a recession and that he immediately put the brakes on spending -- during that very recession.

"President Obama should announce he will not carry out his plan to impose job-killing tax hikes on families and small businesses."

The only families that Obama wants to tax more are those earning above $250,000 a year. Boehner complains that letting some tax cuts expire but not others is "once again putting the government in the position of picking winners and losers and pitting taxpayer against taxpayer." Treating taxpayers differently is inherent in the nature of a progressive tax code. Does Boehner oppose that?

As for small businesses, Boehner & Co. keep repeating that the higher tax rates would affect half of small-business income. But much of that income has nothing to do with mom-and-pop businesses creating jobs, and a lot to do with investment bankers' limited partnerships. Meanwhile, the myth of small business as the engine of job creation is largely that -- a myth. Small businesses create new jobs when they start and take off; they also lose jobs when they crash and burn.

"Raising taxes on families and small businesses during a recession is a recipe for disaster -- both for our economy and for the deficit. Period. End of story."

But that's not the end of the story. Boehner doesn't want to extend the tax cuts temporarily, he wants to make them permanent. And that is a disaster for the deficit.

"President Obama should submit to Congress for its immediate consideration an aggressive spending reduction package."

The argument for immediate spending cuts is hard to square with the argument against tax increases. If the latter is harmful -- a disaster, in Boehner's words -- then surely the former is as well. "When Congress returns, we should force Washington to cut non-defense discretionary spending to 2008 levels -- before the 'stimulus' was put into place," Boehner says. This would be more convincing if he were willing to identify specific cuts. It is, even more, an enormous dodge. Stimulus spending is a sliver of the long-term fiscal problem.

Democrats -- and the country -- would benefit from a responsible opposition party. I'm still looking for evidence of one.

Ruth Marcus' e-mail address is rmarcus@wctrib.com.

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