In a classic YouTube moment, an incredulous Rep. Gerald Connolly (D-VA) recently grilled Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke about the growing federal budget deficit. How, the congressman inquired, could this red ink ever be contained without tax increases? Bernanke replied that, well, yes, it would be difficult but Congress could cut spending.
Connolly seemed perplexed. "Is there enough spending to be cut?" he asked. Now it was the Fed chairman's turn to be incredulous as he shot back, "Of course." But the freshman Democrat could perhaps be forgiven for being unable to contemplate spending reductions of this magnitude. It has been a while since Republicans, ostensibly members of the limited government party, last offered any.
In fact, Republicans have made only three serious attempts to cut federal spending in the postwar era: during the "Do Nothing" Congress of 1947-48; the Congress that came in with Ronald Reagan in 1981-82; and the Gingrich "Republican Revolution" Congress of 1995-96. Since Republicans are within striking distance of taking back one or both houses this year, it worth asking what spending a new GOP majority might try to cut.
The Gingrich Republicans gave clues as to what spending they would attack before Newt himself got anywhere near the speaker's gavel. The first was procedural. Reps. Bill Zeliff (R-NH) and Rob Andrews (D-NJ) proposed the A to Z spending cuts plan in 1993, calling for a special session in which any member of Congress could propose a reduction in expenditures -- even for entitlements -- and get an up-or-down vote.
Reps. John Kasich (R-OH) and Tim Penny (D-MN) went a step further by offering an actual list of spending to cut. With the Democrats still firmly in control of Congress and the White House, they cobbled together more than 90 specific cuts that initially totaled $103 billion (subsequent compromises brought this figure down to $90 billion).
Penny-Kasich privatized and eliminated some federal programs while reforming others. It increased the federal civilian retirement age from 55 to 65 and deferred cost-of-living adjustments for military retirees younger than 62. It means-tested Medicare, cut foreign aid, canceled a grenade launcher, slashed 252,000 federal jobs, and increased the Davis-Bacon threshold from $2,000 to $100,000 so that its prevailing-wage requirements would balloon the costs of fewer federal contracts.
And Penny-Kasich also scared the hell out of the Clinton administration and the Democratic leadership, who pulled out all the stops to defeat it -- even though all these cuts would have only reduced federal spending by 1 percent over five years. But the Penny-Kasich amendment nearly passed, losing the House by just 213 to 219. It helped give a Republican majority waiting to be born a blueprint for some of its future budget cuts.
Right now, Republicans do have a longer-term plan to seriously address federal spending in the form of Rep. Paul Ryan's (R-WI) fiscal roadmap (although the GOP leadership hasn't exactly embraced Ryan's handiwork). But they don't have anything quite like Penny-Kasich or A to Z to establish their initial credibility as an anti-spending party, something very much in doubt after the budget-busting Bush years.
If Republicans are looking for such a plan, they could do worse than borrow a new A to Z list of spending cuts proposed by Demian Brady of the National Taxpayers Union earlier this year. His objective: "cleaning up after the stimulus," a $787 billion boondoggle that has yet to stimulate in any meaningful sense. Brady offers an alphabetical listing of the spending that could be cut under the rules envisioned by Zeliff and Andrews during the 1990s.
Some of the savings are small in the context of a $3.55 trillion federal budget: getting rid of $7 million in helium resources management, ending mohair subsidies to the tune of $8 million, and terminating $10 million in grants for local government anti-climate changes initiatives, for example. Others, like repealing the remaining stimulus and ending the TARP bailout program, are quite large cuts -- and Brady's plan was introduced before the new health care law passed.
Republicans may not have Democrats like Tim Penny to work with anymore on cutting spending. The current crop of Blue Dogs were largely neutered during the health care debate. Democrats such as Connolly appear to believe spending cuts are a mythical creature like the Loch Ness Monster.
But if the GOP is to retake the majority and do something more worthwhile than reenter the earmarks racket, the party would do well to discover new John Kasichs to offer specific spending reductions now rather than later. They should be able to tell the voters that when the federal budget is this massive, finding room to cut should be as easy as reciting the alphabet from A to Z.
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