The Public Policy

Are We Cutting Enough?

Republicans talk amongst themselves.

By 2.8.11

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Last week House Budget Committee Chairman, Paul Ryan (R-WI) and the GOP leadership announced significant budget cuts for the remaining eight months of the current fiscal year, as reported by Janet Hook and Corey Bowles of the Wall Street Journal. The goal is a 9 percent reduction in nondefense, discretionary spending, a reduction of $43 billion compared to 2010 levels.

Defense spending would increase just 1 percent, an amount of $8 billion, $23 billion below the president's 2011 request.

"Washington's spending spree is over," declared Ryan.

Tracking these numbers gets tricky for the uninitiated, depending on the timing, baseline and categories you use. The Wall Street Journal's lead editorial yesterday ("The $100 Billion Question") characterizes Chairman Ryan's budget plan as "cutting $58 billion from the current spending baseline" which, presumably, be the sum of the nondefense and defense reductions. Basically, the Journal defended the cuts as consistent with past GOP promises given that the current fiscal year is vanishing quickly.

Even Senate Assistant Majority Leader Dick Durbin (D-IL), describing himself as a "realist," said, "We're going to end this year with some spending cuts."

Some? The conservative House Republican Study Committee (RSC), made up of nearly two-thirds of GOP members, has called for even more ambitious cuts over the next ten years including almost $100 billion for 2011 alone.

"Many House members want to see at least $100 million in nonsecurity savings this fiscal year and will offer amendments to get there if necessary," claims Brian Straessle, speaking for the RSC.

While the Democratic Senate will be a hurdle for any ambitious budget-cutting efforts, newly elected Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), has made his opening bid to cut $500 billion-now, i.e., for this fiscal year. This is five times the size of the cuts called for by the RSC. Be still my beating heart!

Returning to the House leadership plan, transportation and housing programs would be cut 17 percent from 2010 appropriated levels for instance. Commerce and Justice programs would be reduced by 16 percent, agriculture programs by 14 percent (no doubt a heavy lift for a lot of farm-state Republicans). More cuts are promised for next year given that this year is or will be nearly half over.

"These cuts will not be easy, they will be broad and deep, they will affect every congressional district," said Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-KY), formerly one of the band of spending brothers who seems to have found his way back to the true faith.

Whatever level of cuts are enacted, the Democrats have only themselves to blame since they never managed to pass an actual budget, just temporary ones to carry the government through to March. This failure of responsibility, providentially, opened up an opportunity for the Republicans to begin budgetary reform upon taking over Congress this year.

Meanwhile, President Obama, like St. Augustine, pre-conversion, says yes to cuts, O Lord, but not yet. He is proposing a five-year extension of discretionary spending at 2010 levels.

So the Republicans are having a lively talk amongst themselves, which is not all bad. While the House leadership is taking a strong, but measured approach to budget reform, very late in the fiscal year at that, the RSC and Senator Paul should be given their chance to make the case for more cuts where possible. This is a good conversation to have, notwithstanding the real-world constraints of a Democratic Senate and President, veto pen in hand. Enlarging both the universe of potential cuts and, more importantly, the imagination of the political class in terms of other cuts and reforms not yet conceived is all to the good.

While our hearts are with the RSC and Senator Paul, our minds must acknowledge the difficulties the GOP leadership must face in changing the national culture on federal spending. Cold turkey versus gradual withdrawal is the basic choice before the House.

Moreover, as Susan Ferrechio of the Washington Examiner has reported, the cuts proposed by Chairman Ryan are $74 billion less than the President's original spending request for the fiscal year, no mean thing that. Also, Ferrechio notes that "Last week, House Republicans pushed through a measure instructing Ryan to cut non-defense spending to 2008 levels for the remainder of the fiscal year, which his plan achieves [emphasis added]."

The Republicans need a good hard debate on the extent of budget cuts for this fiscal year and beyond. Let's hope that they do not go verklempt in the course of that debate but maintain collegiality and pursue the argument with prudence and good will. After all, the main event is yet to come: reform of sacrosanct entitlement programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. 

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About the Author

G. Tracy Mehan III served at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the administrations of both Presidents Bush. He is a consultant in Arlington, Virginia, and an adjunct professor at George Mason University School of Law.