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The New York Times has an article today observing that Republicans’ campaign rhetoric about reining in out of control government spending hasn’t been backed up by specific proposals that would accomplish that goal. It’s something that I myself have noted repeatedly (see here here and here).
Republican candidates will discuss the need to cut waste from the budget vaguely while ruling out cuts to entitlements and defense spending. To demonstrate how absurd this is, I put together this pie chart breaking down the components of the 2009 federal budget. All of the parts in blue — or 83 percent — would be off limits for any cuts if you follow what the typical Republican candidates are saying and read the GOP’s “Pledge to America.” That leaves just 17 percent of the budget left to cut. Even if you were to eliminate this entire slice of the budget (meaning you’re willing to gut the Department of Homeland Security and defund all other federal agencies and departments) it wouldn’t even eliminate half of last year’s deficit.
More specifically, the federal budget was $3.5 trillion in 2009. Mandatory spending is primarily comprised of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, but also of programs such as veteran’s benefits, unemployment insurance and food stamps. While Republicans have taken some stands on paying for additional extensions of unemployment benefits, they’ve maintained their underlying support for the benefits. So if you eleminate mandatory spending, that takes nearly $2.1 trillion off of the table. That leaves discressionary spending. But if the defense budget is off limits, there’s another $655 billion that’s untouchable. And unless the GOP is for defaulting on the national debt, they’d have to support spending $187 billion on interest payments. That leaves just $582 billion left that’s theoretically touchable. Republicans have pledged to save $100 billion by returning spending to pre-stimulus levels. But even if they were willing to go further, and get rid of the entire $582 billion in discretionary spending, it still wouldn’t even get at half the deficit — which stood at over $1.4 trillion in 2009.
Granted, there are a lot of moving parts in the budget. If the economy should improve, for instance, revenues would go up and spending on such programs as unemployment benefits would naturally increase, helping to narrow the deficit. But over time, the trends are obvious. Without adressing mandatory spending, there’s no hope of bringing down our debt and restraining the growth of government. And Republicans don’t deserve to be seen as the party of smaller government until they begin to acknowledge (and grapple with) this simple fact.