By Ruth Marcus
Discretionary spending, the part of the federal budget that is not on autopilot and is subject to annual appropriations, generally constitutes less than 40 percent of federal spending. Take out defense spending and that share drops to well under 20 percent. So if your goal is to slash government spending and your approach is to go after discretionary spending without touching the military, it will require punishing, drastic cuts to make any serious dent in the deficit.
Even then, it won’t be enough.
That is the unavoidable lesson of the spending reductions proposed by the Republican Study Committee, the group of conservative Republicans who now account for more than 170 members of the 242-member House Republican caucus.
The logical way of looking at the federal budget and taking the urgent step of getting the debt to manageable levels is to think seriously about what government should look like and then determine how to generate enough revenue to fund those needs.
Then there is the Republican Study Committee way, which focuses arbitrarily on one relatively small slice of the federal budget and imposes an arbitrary limit on its size. The RSC proposal would set discretionary spending at its level in fiscal year 2006, $409 billion, for the apparent reason that this was the last year the Republicans were in charge of Congress, and keep it there, through 2021.
This sounds appealingly feasible; after all, government wasn’t exactly skeletal in 2006. But it’s not. Taking inflation into account, this would mean an overall cut of more than 40 percent by 2021, according to calculations by James Horney of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Are the RSC members prepared to cut education spending by that much? Spending on veterans and homeland security? Food safety? Federal law enforcement?
I don’t think so, which may explain why the proposal shies away from painful specifics. It imagines discretionary spending cuts that amount to $2.5 trillion over 10 years but details just a fraction of these: $330 billion. They include eliminating subsidies for Amtrak, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the U.S. Agency for International Development, community development block grants and high-speed rail, to name a few of the bigger-ticket items.
To get a sense of how massive are the cuts that the RSC envisions, consider that the president’s Commission on Fiscal Responsibility proposed slashing discretionary spending by $1.6 trillion—compared with the RSC’s $2.5 trillion—and subjected defense spending to a proportionate share of the pain.
At the same time, the commission’s plan—because it included increases in revenue and tackled entitlement spending—envisioned cumulative deficit reduction of $3.9 trillion. The RSC plan offers not a peep about entitlement spending—and certainly nothing about new taxes. In other words, for all its flaws, the commission accomplished more deficit reduction in a smarter, more balanced way.
At a news conference Thursday, RSC members said this proposal was just a start—that entitlement spending would have to be addressed and that defense would not necessarily be spared. But this proposal is more political posturing than responsible deficit reduction. When the members of the Republican Study Committee come up with a budget document that outlines exactly where the cuts will come—and pledge to vote for those cuts—it will be time to take them seriously.
Ruth Marcus’ e-mail address is marcusr(at symbol)washpost.com.
© 2011, Washington Post Writers Group