Conservatives for almost two years now have claimed that the federal budget deficit is solely a spending problem—and that the solution, therefore, is to just cut spending as deeply as possible. Before the 2010 congressional elections, then-House of Representatives Minority Leader Boehner (R-OH) promised to find $100 billion in cuts in the first year of the new Congress. Since then, the newly elected House majority has been long on boastful claims but short on specifics.
Until yesterday. Finally, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Hal Rogers (R-KY), released a partial list of the cuts that he says will be included in an upcoming spending bill. Now in control of the House of Representatives, conservatives finally have their chance to show the world how they can balance the budget through spending cuts alone.
And as it turns out, they’re finding it awfully hard to find even the $100 billion they promised—let alone the hundreds of billions of dollars more it would take to actually bring the federal budget into balance. The cuts outlined today are extremely deep and extremely damaging, cutting into the meat of important public programs—but they still add up to only about $20 billion.
Indeed, the most definitive Republican plan to date to reduce federal spending perfectly illustrates the dilemma facing those who would try to cut their way to balance. Even a small down payment toward spending cuts starts to bite quickly into things our country wants and needs. Imagine what the full $100 billion would look like, but first let’s look at what $20 billion would do. Some of the deepest cuts announced today include:
- Slashing job training programs fully in half—despite the fact that a skilled workforce is the key to our future economic prosperity, and not to mention the fact that the unemployment rate is currently at 9 percent.
- Steep reductions for scientific research and development investments that are key to the nation’s economic competitiveness, growth, jobs, and health—among them funding for the National Institutes of Health, Centers for Disease Control, the National Laboratories, the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Geological Survey, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Agricultural Research Service. All would have to cut back, compared to the president’s levels, some by as much as one-fifth.
- A 90 percent cut to community policing grants that go to cities and towns to help improve the effectiveness of their police forces, on top of a 20 percent cut to all other state and local law-enforcement assistance. Additionally, the House budget will include a 22 percent cut to the Office of National Drug Control Policy and a 23 percent cut to the National Drug Intelligence Center.
- A massive slashing of federal support for state and local water and sewage projects alongside the complete elimination of high-speed rail funding and a $230 million cut for the Federal Aviation Administration, as compared to the president’s previously proposed levels.
- Substantial reductions to services targeted at low-income children, including cuts to the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children; grants to states to support maternal and child health; and a near-halving of community health centers, which treated more than 7 million low-income children in 2009. Amazingly, the House budget would all but eliminate Poison Control Centers.
- Cutbacks in food safety. Both the Food and Drug Administration and the Food Safety and Inspection Service will see rollbacks if the House budget is adopted.
These are not cosmetic adjustments. As Rep. Rogers himself said, “These cuts are real and will impact every district across the country.” But, he argues, despite all the damage these cuts will do, they are necessary to “right our fiscal ship and begin to reduce our massive deficits and debt.”
And how much fiscal ship-righting do we reap from these painful cuts? Not a whole lot. All together, if the entire package of cuts were implemented, the federal government would save about $20 billion compared to last year’s spending levels. Now $20 billion is not nothing, of course, but it is only 1.3 percent of this year’s fiscal deficit and less than 3 percent of the average deficit over the next 10 years even under the rosiest of assumptions.
In short, for conservatives to fully balance the budget sometime this decade purely by cutting spending, they are going to have to come out with another 34 packages worth $20 billion a piece in spending cuts.
Are there another 34 packages of secret spending cuts waiting in the wings? Rep. Rogers doesn’t seem to think so. “We have taken a wire brush to the discretionary budget and scoured every program to find real savings,” he admits. All that scouring results in significant damage to vital services and programs but not a lot of deficit reduction.
And that paradox is exactly why those who argue we can “right our fiscal ship” without raising additional revenue are, and always have been, blowing smoke. The new leadership in the House of Representatives promised $100 billion in spending cuts—itself not enough to come near to balancing the budget. And yet, after the budget was “scoured” for savings, they can find just a fraction of that $100 billion.
Given the limitations they set for themselves—no defense cuts, no tax increases—they were bound to fail at cutting their way to a balanced budget. As Rep. Rogers explains, “Make no mistake, these cuts are not low-hanging fruit.” Certainly he’s right about that. But if they’ve already had to climb way up into the tree to find $20 billion in spending cuts, where do they think they’ll find the next several hundred billion?
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.