Supercommittee Fails; Now Let’s Talk Specific Cuts

It looks like the congressional supercommittee has failed to agree on a deficit-reduction plan. That’s probably a good thing because it sets up an automatic sequester to trim spending by $1.2 trillion over 10 years.

If the supercommittee had agreed to a deal, it might have paired phony spending cuts with real tax increases. For example, while Republicans had offered to raise taxes by $400 billion, there had been talk of adopting smoke-and-mirrors savings of $700 billion for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Also, one of the tax increases that Republicans were apparently offering was to change the indexing of income tax brackets. That would have been the worst kind of tax hike, as it would have been a hidden way of steadily increasing marginal tax rates over time.

A sequester is far from the best way to cut spending, and spendthrift members of Congress will have until January 2013 to try and weasel out of cuts. However, it does help to put the big spenders on the defensive. If defense hawks such as Senator John McCain want to reverse the roughly $55 billion a year in defense savings, then they have the burden of coming up with alternative cuts that can gain broad agreement.

CBO has analyzed the sequester mechanism. In typical congressional style, the simple sequester idea of “across-the-board cuts” has morphed into complex procedures that only Washington lawyers would love. The sequester’s main effect will be to reduce the discretionary caps on defense and nondefense spending that are in place from the Budget Control Act passed earlier this year. The sequester will make only tiny cuts to so-called entitlement programs. Still, any cuts are good cuts.

What’s the next step for budget control? Conservative Republicans have focused nearly all of their energy this year on trying to impose overall limits on the budget. The Budget Control Act and likely sequester have established discretionary caps for the next decade. Meanwhile, an effort to pass a Balanced Budget Amendment has failed.

Now Republicans should do what most of them have been evading all year—start pushing cuts to particular programs in order to launch a discussion about the federal government’s proper role. How about ending federal subsidies for public housing, high-speed rail, urban transit, farm businesses, and energy? How about raising the Social Security retirement age, increasing Medicare deductibles, and block-granting Medicaid?

To his credit, Rep. Pompeo is showing the way with his push to eliminate the Economic Development Administration. The EDA is a relatively small program, but Pompeo did a nice job on Fox last week making the case for termination. We need every fiscal conservative in Congress to do some research and then target a handful of specific programs for repeal.

Enough of the “noncommittal gibberish” about cuts, as Robert Samuelson says today. The nation’s “adult discussion” on the budget will begin when policymakers start talking specifics.