Rand Paul is trying to comprehend Washington's bizarre customs, starting with the Senate breaking so soon after he was sworn in. "I told people back home in Kentucky that now that I'm a federal employee, I showed up for an hour and they told me to go home for two weeks," the new Republican senator quipped.
But instead of taking it easy, Paul has already engaged in a flurry of legislative activity. He introduced a bill to audit the Federal Reserve, an upper-chamber version of the legislation his father has championed in the House. Paul teamed with Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) on a bill to revoke birthright citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants. He joined Sens. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and Mike Lee (R-UT) in launching the Senate Tea Party Caucus. He recorded his own widely circulated response to the State of the Union address.
Paul's most ambitious effort so far has been the bill he introduced last week to cut $500 billion from the federal budget in one year. You read that correctly -- billion with a "b" taking place in a single year. That's five times more than what the Republican leadership has promised and reduces the current deficit by more than even the Republican Study Committee's proposal.
Most impressive of all, the bill concentrates almost entirely on domestic discretionary spending plus a small amount of defense cuts. "The reason we chose this tactic was to show that we can cut $500 billion without touching Social Security or Medicare," Paul said in a conference call last Thursday. "Not that you don't have to do that too." Paul says he's already at work on a bill to "fix the entire" Social Security funding shortfall and will introduce a Medicare bill later.
The bill hasn't been independently scored, but based its figures on official government data. And those numbers are large. The Departments of Education, Energy, and Housing and Urban Development are abolished entirely, with federal energy and housing spending totally zeroed out of the federal budget. The Interior Department sees a 78 percent decrease in funding, State 71 percent, the Commerce Department 54 percent, and Homeland Security 43 percent.
Foreign aid, the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Government Printing Office, Amtrak, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the Commission on Fine Arts are just a few of the programs and agencies that are gone, completely wiped out by these spending cuts. The Smithsonian is privatized.
Food stamps and farm subsidies are taken back to 2008 funding levels, before the Obama-era spending increases that the president would like to lock in with his five-year spending "freeze." More than $42 billion are deleted from the Agriculture Department's budget. Spending on the legislative and judicial branches is also knocked back to 2008 levels, as are most of the Department of Health and Human Services' discretionary programs.
NOT EVERYONE WILL BE HAPPY with these cuts. Everyone from the Republican Jewish Coalition to J Street denounced Paul for failing to exempt Israel when eliminating foreign aid. Liberals who dream of public schools that are lavishly funded while the military holds bake sales -- remember that bumper sticker? -- will howl when they see Paul has cut $30 billion more from education than defense. Despite their rhetoric, the Republican leadership has never backed spending cuts of this magnitude.
Even if you quibble with some of Paul's specific cuts -- his section on the Labor Department appears to terminate all funding for OLMS, the only federal entity that oversees labor unions -- there is considerable merit to his approach. Instead of wringing savings out of budget caps that need to be enforced across multiple Congresses over a number of years, all the cuts take place in one year. Instead of trimming and tinkering, Paul abolishes programs and shuts down agencies.
Paul is also testing the seriousness of those who claim to favor fiscal responsibility and limited government. His bill cuts more in a single year than the president hopes to save after freezing non-defense discretionary spending for five years. "By removing programs that are beyond the constitutional role of the federal government, such as education and housing, we are cutting nearly 40 percent of our projected deficit and removing the big-government bureaucrats who stand in the way of efficiency in our federal government," Paul said in a statement.
Skeptics may counter that Rand Paul's father has proposed a lot of legislation over the years too, much of it going nowhere. But as a fiscal crisis looms, desperate times may call for radical measures. Senator Paul isn't just trying to cut spending. He is raising the stakes.