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Politicians Put Positive Spin On Budget Battle Words

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Politicians Put Positive Spin On Budget Battle Words


Politicians Put Positive Spin On Budget Battle Words

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The ongoing budget battle boils down to numbers: how much the government takes in, how much it spends. But it's also a battle over words. Both sides have put a lot of energy into coming up with new ways of describing old concepts.

They're hoping the revised language will help sell their ideas to the public, as NPR's Jim Zarroli reports.

JIM ZARROLI: At the end of the day, the budget battle is political, and both sides choose their words carefully. Democrats, for example, don't like to talk about government spending, which has a bad connotation, so they talk about making investments in the country's future.

Republicans say they want to get rid of the death tax instead of the estate tax.

In his April 13 speech on the budget, President Obama used a new word of his own. He said he wanted to put a failsafe in the budget.

Joe Henchman, vice president of the Tax Foundation, says he's never heard that word used in that context.

JOE HENCHMAN: That would be a new one on me, but of course the same idea gets rebranded many different times.

ZARROLI: As it turns out, a failsafe, besides being a 1964 movie about nuclear war, would be one of President Obama's ways of keeping spending under control. It would freeze most government spending if the deficit got too big. Henchman says in that sense a failsafe is something like Vice President Gore's lockbox - a device meant to keep politicians from getting their hands on too much of the taxpayers' money.

Len Burman, who worked in the Treasury Department under President Clinton, says these measures are ineffective because Congress can easily override them.

LEN BURMAN: There are other rules in place in Congress, like the budget rules generally that Congress often waives so they can do things, like, for example, pass enormous tax cuts.

ZARROLI: Meanwhile, Republicans have been doing some rebranding of their own. A few weeks ago, Minnesota congresswoman and Tea Party leader Michele Bachmann tried to get people to stop warning about a government shutdown. Even if the government were to cut non-essential services, she told Fox News, a lot of government workers would stay on the job.

MICHELE BACHMANN: It would be one-fourth that would be furloughed. So the government would not shut down, it would slow down.

ZARROLI: At the time it looked as though the government might be in for a repeat of the 1995 shutdown, which hadn't come out too well for Bachmann's party. Again, Joe Henchman.

HENCHMAN: I guess slowdown sounds less ominous and terrible than a shutdown does, but I don't think that really caught on.

ZARROLI: The whole thing became moot when a budget deal was reached. But the budget wars go on. President Obama's speech contained another phrase that seemed equally unfamiliar to a lot of people.

BARACK OBAMA: The fourth step in our approach is to reduce spending in the tax code.

ZARROLI: The president said cutting spending wouldn't be enough. He said he wanted to reduce spending in the tax code. On "The Daily Show," Jon Stewart wondered whether that was a euphemism for raising taxes.


JON STEWART: You managed to talk about a tax hike as a spending reduction.


STEWART: Can we afford that and the royalty checks you're going to have to send to George Orwell?

ZARROLI: In fact, spending in the tax code is not a new phrase, just an especially wonkish one.

Len Burman, who now teaches public affairs at Syracuse University, says that to achieve policy goals the government has been offering more and more tax credits over the years. Instead of spending money on housing for the poor, for instance, Washington hands out tax credits to developers. Burman says doing it this way is a lot less risky politically for lawmakers.

BURMAN: If you create a new program through a tax credit or deduction, it looks like a tax cut. So you kind of sound like you're a small government conservative or you're cutting people's taxes, which they like. Whereas if you run the program through traditional mechanisms, say, through HUD or some other government agency, then you're a big government liberal, you're a tax and spender.

ZARROLI: But Burman says tax credits costs the government $1.2 trillion a year. For lawmakers, reducing these credits might be less toxic political than raising taxes. And he says that may be one way for the government to move beyond words and really cut the deficit.

Jim Zarroli, NPR News.

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