Jackie Calmes at NYT:
Many people knowledgeable about the federal budget said House Republicans could not keep their campaign promise to cut $100 billion from domestic spending in a single year. Now it appears that Republicans agree.
As they prepare to take power on Wednesday, Republican leaders are scaling back that number by as much as half, aides say, because the current fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, will be nearly half over before spending cuts could become law.
While House Republicans were never expected to succeed in enacting cuts of that scale, given opposition in the Senate from the Democratic majority and some Republicans, and from President Obama, a House vote would put potentially vulnerable Republican lawmakers on record supporting deep reductions of up to 30 percent in education, research, law enforcement, transportation and more.
Now aides say that the $100 billion figure was hypothetical, and that the objective is to get annual spending for programs other than those for the military, veterans and domestic security back to the levels of 2008, before Democrats approved stimulus spending to end the recession.
Yet “A Pledge to America,” the manifesto House Republicans published last September, included the promise, “We will roll back government spending to pre-stimulus, pre-bailout levels, saving us at least $100 billion in the first year alone.”
Their excuse will be that the fiscal year, which began on October 1, will already be almost half over by the time the budgetary resolution that was passed during the lame duck runs out in March. That means they’ll only have seven months to work with this fiscal year; when they said they’d cut $100 billion, they meant the first full fiscal year that they’re in charge. But wait, you say! Shouldn’t it be fairly easy to find $100 billion to cut in an annual budget that exceeds $3.5 trillion? Well, yes — except that the GOP’s limiting itself to cutting discretionary spending (Social Security and Medicare are, as ever, completely off-limits) and even within discretionary spending they refuse to touch “security” budgets, i.e. Defense and Homeland Security. That leaves just $500 billion or so for this year to play with, and since, as Rich Lowry noted earlier at the Corner, a good chunk of that will already have been spent by the time the continuing resolution expires in the spring, they’d have to make huge cuts to what’s left in order to get to $100 billion in savings overall.
The point to ponder here, I think, is that even the highly touted $100 billion figure is just a small fraction of last year’s deficit. Even with a tea-party Congress, even with a gigantic pool of expenditures to cut from, political reality is such that not only can’t they reach that modest, largely symbolic target in seven months, they’ll actually have to move heaven and earth during the next full fiscal year to get Obama and the Senate Democrats to agree to it. This is what we’ve been reduced to — the suspense of wondering whether the new Republican majority can achieve cuts that will barely make a dent in our annual budget shortfall. Hugely depressing.
Hugely depressing, but hopefully hugely instructive as well. The pledge to cut $100 billion was always more of a symbolic sop to the Tea Parties than a real step toward fiscal discipline. The question for the new Republican majority has always been whether it will make any serious progress on entitlement reform and tax reform, not whether it will find inevitably-marginal ways to trim discretionary spending. You can’t have fiscal responsibility if you keep entitlements, tax expenditures and defense spending off the table, and the fact that these realities have been exposed in the very first week of G.O.P. control, thanks to the peculiarities of the fiscal calendar, is probably good news for fiscal conservatism. The sooner we get certain fond illusions out of the way, the better.
Peter Suderman at Reason:
I’m somewhat sympathetic to the political reality of the situation; $100 billion in cuts would have been a tall order. But the excuses given here seem designed to test one’s sympathy. Are all figures attached to campaign promises now potentially hypothetical? Were Republicans not aware of the timing of the fiscal year when making the $100 billion promise? At least the feeling isn’t universal: GOP Senator-elect Rand Paul has already responded to the article by saying that $50 billion in cuts isn’t enough.
I’m not sure that anyone will be outraged over this. The important thing is for Congress to move in the right direction and stop the kind of out-of-control deficit spending by which Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats increased the national debt by $5.2 trillion in four years.Excerpts from Speaker Boehner’s opening speech today:
“The American people have humbled us. They have refreshed our memories as to just how temporary the privilege to serve is. They have reminded us that everything here is on loan from them. That includes this gavel, which I accept cheerfully and gratefully, knowing I am but its caretaker. After all, this is the people’s House. This is their Congress. It’s about them, not us. What they want is a government that is honest, accountable and responsive to their needs. A government that respects individual liberty, honors our heritage, and bows before the public it serves.”
That’s the written text, which doesn’t include the part where he gets all choked up and starts crying. (It’s OK, Mr. Speaker, we like the crying.) Boehner’s speech — crying and all — will be livestreamed.
Oh, I see. Republican pledges are “hypothetical” promises. The Pledge to America must have included asterisks and disclaimers in font so small, the country missed the caveats.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), the ranking member on the House Budget Committee, said, “I think they woke up to the reality that this will have a direct negative impact on people’s lives…. You know, it’s easy to talk about these things in the abstract. It’s another thing when you start taking away people’s college loans and Pell Grants or cutting early education programs.”
To be sure, I’m delighted Republicans aren’t actually going to pursue this indefensible goal. When political leaders start breaking high-profile promises right out of the gate, it’s generally not a positive development, but in this case, we’re all better off with GOP leaders having changed their minds.
Of course, this doesn’t change the fact that Republicans never should have made this promise to begin with, and shouldn’t have put themselves in a position in which they’re breaking their own pledge immediately after taking office.
Jonathan Chait at TNR:
The basic situation is that you have a tiny handful of principled conservatives who genuinely want to cut the size of actual government programs. But that accounts for a tiny slice of the general opposition to government programs, which is rooted in misperceptions about what government spends money on alongside strong support for the programs that actually exist. Government programs are popular. Some of them serve little purpose (think farm subsidies) but those generally exist precisely because they have powerful constituencies.