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Reality Bites

The House Republicans Dance with Budget Reality

SOURCE: AP/J. Scott Applewhite

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) and the Senate Budget Committee's top Republican, Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, give the GOP response to President Obama's budget submission for FY 2012.

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The House Republicans are gradually being forced, step-by-step, to concede that—notwithstanding their promise in the recent congressional election—even they don’t support the idea of cutting $100 billion from the 2011 nonsecurity, nonentitlement portion of the federal budget. The most recent step is crossing the Rubicon into cutting the security side of the budget to hit their $100 billion goal. And that’s just the latest forward step in a “three-step-forward one-step-back” Tango con Realidad they’ve executed. We’ll really know that they’ve faced up to reality when they add just one more step to the dance: taxes.

The first step in the House Republican progression to reality was a sashay into slippery bookkeeping. They have contorted their promise to cut $100 billion from the federal budget into a proposal to spend $100 billion less than what President Barack Obama proposed to spend for 2011 in the budget he presented to Congress over a year ago. That is a really weird way to look at “cutting spending” since President Obama’s budget didn’t pass, Congress didn’t even consider passing it as-was, and it is a completely dead and irrelevant document at this point. It’s like trying to save money in your family budget by taking away your kids’ allowance when you don’t actually pay your kids an allowance.

The honest thing to “cut,” if you really want to reduce federal spending by $100 billion dollars, is the level of spending that is actually in place—not the level of a past proposal long-since dead. To belabor our simile, if your kid doesn’t get an allowance but he does get paid for chores, then if you want to save money what you take away is the payment for the chores not the nonexistent allowance.

So why aren’t the House Republicans proposing to cut $100 billion relative to the current levels? Simple: because the president’s proposed 2011 budget had spending increases higher than what we’re actually spending. So cutting $100 billion relative to the president’s proposal leaves more spending in place than cutting it relative to current levels.

Why did Republicans hell-bent on reducing the size of government engage in this slight of hand to avoid truly cutting $100 billion? Because they know that, notwithstanding their pronouncements on the campaign trail, cutting $100 billion would put a hurt on programs that even they think serve a useful purpose and which are popular with voters they care about.

Step II of the House Republican dance toward reality was their initial plan to cut only $74 billion relative to the president’s old budget instead of the promised $100 billion. That reflected an acknowledgment of the House leadership that authored the plan that cutting $100 billion even from the president’s old budget would put a hurt on programs that even they think serve a useful purpose, and which are popular with voters they care about (note the pattern). As it turns out the new Tea Party wing rebelled against step II so the House Republicans had to execute a backstep and come up with version 2.0, which goes back to the $100 billion figure despite the older hands’ awareness of its problems.

Step III involves a move to cutting an area of spending that had been labeled as inviolate: security spending. To be specific, they cut $1.5 billion from military construction, $2 billion from the department of Homeland Security, and $14 billion from the Department of Defense. This reflects an acknowledgment from House Republicans that cutting $100 billion from only the nonsecurity, nonentitlement portion of even the president’s old budget, would hurt programs that even they think serve a useful purpose and which are popular with voters they care about.

Even with steps I and III in place, they still had to make cuts that are deeply damaging or strong demonstrations of how hard the House Republicans are finding this to do. The fact that, for example, they’re cutting funding for border security when that has been such a central part of their agenda shows how hard this is for them. Areas that they are cutting that would be very damaging to the country include:

  • More than $8 billion from scientific research and development
  • More than $1.5 billion from federal law enforcement and assistance to state and local law enforcement
  • More than $2 billion from job training programs
  • More than $800 million from food and drug inspection and disease control
  • Nearly $7 billion from infrastructure, including highways, the Federal Aviation Administration, and railroads
  • Almost $20 billion from education assistance, including massive cuts to Pell Grants
  • More than $2.3 billion from health and nutrition services for children, including the near-elimination of poison control centers

Thus, even with slippery bookkeeping and cuts in security spending the House Republicans had to take a deep dive into cutting spending that is very important to the country to get their $100 billion.

Now $100 billion is a far cry from what’s needed to actually get the budget in line over the long-run—which brings us to step IV in the Tango con Realidad. This one hasn’t happened yet. We’re not holding our breath that it happens any time soon. But at some point it’s going to have to happen. Step IV is acknowledging that we aren’t going to solve our fiscal problems until we raise taxes.

Michael Ettlinger is the Vice President for Economic Policy at the Center for American Progress. Michael Linden is the Associate Director for Tax and Budget Policy at the Center. To see an alternative approach to deficit reduction, see the “The First Step: A Progressive Plan for Meaningful Deficit Reduction by 2015.”

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