It has been four months since John Boehner
, now speaker of the House, first proposed to cut $100 billion from this year’s budget, an idea that was later elevated to a “pledge to America” in the 2010 campaign. Last week, Mr. Boehner finally specified his first actual cut: $35 million from House lawmakers’ office budgets.
Precisely because it is puny and painless, the cut passed the House with broad support, showing once again that the path to bipartisanship in Washington is paved with giveaways (like deficit-increasing tax cuts) and grandstanding (like trivial spending cuts dressed up as deficit reduction).
The road to fiscal responsibility is a harder one. Even as Republican leaders tout the $100 billion goal, aides have said it will be $50 billion to $60 billion, to adjust for the fact that the fiscal year is already under way. Whatever the sum, the public needs to know from Mr. Boehner what specific programs and services Republicans are willing to cut. The question is pressing, but not because the cuts are pressing. On the contrary, cutting billions would be foolish at a time when joblessness is high and the recovery needs stimulus, not tightening.
The question is important because without specifics, there can be no real debate on the best ways to reduce the deficit. Spending cuts need not and should not start today, but the nation needs to put a credible plan in place now to reduce the deficit as the economy recovers.
Campaigning is not the same as governing, and this prolonged state of political posture invites budget gimmicks and, worse, portends dangerous deadline-driven showdowns over who seems most willing to cut spending. This spring, for instance, Republicans could try to attach a demand for unspecified, across-the-board cuts to must-pass legislation to raise the nation’s debt limit.
If successful, that would allow them to take credit for spending reductions without ever having to explain what, specifically, they want to cut, or defend those decisions. Why the reluctance to specify?
While House Republican leaders have not said what they would cut, they have said what they would spare: defense. They have also pledged to shield seniors from spending cuts, apparently to please recipients of entitlements like Medicare and Social Security. They also zealously defend the huge sums the country spends to give tax breaks to people who do not need them.
That leaves programs totaling $477 billion — 14 percent of the $3.5 trillion federal budget — to absorb the promised cuts, including education, environment, transportation, diplomacy, disease control, scientific research, investor protection, and all other basic government programs on which the quality of American life depends.
Spread evenly, the cuts would come to more than 20 percent in each broad category. Cuts that deep in a single year have occurred only once, from 2009 to 2010, when the temporary increase from the stimulus reverted to more normal levels. Otherwise they are unprecedented, and no wonder. A 20 percent cut in education, for instance, would take some $8 billion out of federal money for schools, deepening the teacher layoffs and other cutbacks already enacted by states.
And for what? Cutting any arbitrary amount — like $100 billion — from discretionary spending will not result in meaningful long-term deficit reduction because deficits are not driven by discretionary spending. They are driven by rising health care costs and chronic tax shortfalls. Such cuts are even unlikely to result in near-term deficit reduction, because lawmakers would have to vote each year to keep spending at the newly depressed levels, an unlikely — and undesirable — prospect.
House Republicans claim that voters elected them in November to cut spending. Let’s hear the specifics, and then see what the people want.
====================================================================================Let the excuses begin....