With the less-than-graceful exit of former Rep. Mike Castle (R-DE) from the House Republican Conference last year, the moderate wing of that group has pretty much disappeared altogether. But the bitterness and animosity that was once directed at the moderates has not. New political fault lines have emerged between what I would call the “right-wing conservatives” and the “total crazies.”
At the center of the conflict is Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI), who by almost anybody’s measure is a right-wing conservative. He is the principal author of “A Roadmap to America’s Future,” a budget plan that among other things would largely turn the Medicare program over to private insurance carriers.
More recently he used the extraordinary powers granted to him by the House Rules Committee—it provided him the authority to unilaterally determine the limits on federal discretionary spending for the remainder of the year giving his personal judgment the same standing as a resolution approved by majorities in both houses of Congress—to direct a cut of as much as 19 percent in the funding levels for 12 of the 15 departments of the federal government and nearly all of its independent agencies.
A partial list of the cuts required by Rep. Ryan’s edict was published yesterday by the Appropriations Committee and drew gasps from most quarters. The list amounted to only 40 percent of the total cuts required, but included about 70 items ranging from elimination of most federal assistance to local law enforcement to a 6 percent cut below last year’s level in research grants at the National Institutes of Health, deep cuts in child nutrition programs, and the elimination of family planning.
But last night it became clear that Mr. Ryan’s proposal would not fly—not because he was too extreme but because he was not extreme enough. In a severe slap at not only Rep. Ryan but Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) as well, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) mustered the forces of the “total crazies” to countermand Rep. Ryan and direct the Appropriations Committee to produce an additional $26 billion in cuts.
In short, the Appropriations Committee will now need to prepare a list three and a half times the size of the one they released yesterday, rather than the cuts mandated by Ryan that would have been only two and a half times that size.
Because the Republicans have insisted on further tax cuts; have left all entitlement spending off the chopping block; and have likewise excluded the Departments of Defense, Veterans Affairs, and Homeland Security spending from any cuts; they have only about 12.5 percent or one-eighth of the budget from which to cut. Because the current fiscal year is already almost half over, they actually have less than 7 percent of spending from which cuts may be extracted. (For a more detailed discussion of this point, see “Heading for a Deficit Dustup” and “Just Plain Nuts,” recently posted on this website.)
While that is a tiny share of total spending, it is a huge chunk of what we think of as government, ranging from law enforcement to air traffic control, food safety, the courts, and our diplomatic corps. As a result, the cuts could have two seemingly contradictory consequences. First, they will do little to reduce a $1.5 trillion deficit. And second, they could have an absolutely devastating impact on the nation’s social infrastructure—placing citizens at risk of a variety of dangers ranging from criminality to disease transportation hazards and financial fraud.
Because the cuts that are required have forced choices so extreme that many Republicans will have difficulty swallowing them, the House Appropriations Committee will not be able to file legislation this evening as originally planned. That is actually a good thing. The nation needs a lot more time to examine this proposal and weigh its risks.
Scott Lilly is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.