Tag: budget plan

McConnell’s Cave-In and Boehner’s Opportunity

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has offered the president a way to raise the debt ceiling by $2.5 trillion without having to cut spending. The WaPo reports that “McConnell’s strategy makes no provision for spending cuts to be enacted.”

This appears to be an epic cave-in and completely at odds with McConnell’s own pronouncements in recent months that major budget reforms must be tied to any debt-limit increase.

House Republicans should obviously reject McConnell’s surrender, and they should do what they should have done months ago. They should put together a package of $2 trillion in real spending cuts taken straight from the Obama fiscal commission report and pass it through the House tied to a debt-limit increase of $2 trillion. Then they shouldn’t budge unless the White House and/or the Senate produce their own $2 trillion packages of real spending cuts, which could be the basis of negotiating a final spending-cut deal.

For those who say that House tea party members won’t vote for a debt increase, I’d say that $2 trillion in spending cuts looks a lot better than the alternative of having Democrats and liberal Republicans doing an end-run around them with McConnell’s no-cut plan.

For those who say that House members are scared of voting for specific spending cuts, I’d say that they’ve already done it by passing the Paul Ryan budget plan. I’d also say that you can’t claim to be the party of spending cuts without voting for spending cuts.

Obama’s Fiscal Commission handed Republicans ready-made spending cuts on a silver platter—Republicans will never get better political cover for insisting on spending cuts than now.

On the Politics of Deficits and Debt

Today POLITICO Arena asks:

How will yesterday’s largely symbolic Senate vote rejecting the Ryan FY 2012 budget plan affect the 2012 political fortunes of Republicans, especially those facing possible Tea Party-fueled primary challenges?

My response:

Yesterday’s Senate vote was simply an effort by Democrats to capitalize on the outcome of Tuesday’s NY-26 election. It changed nothing on the ground. Responding to that election, most congressional Republicans, far from deserting the Ryan plan, have only rallied more strongly behind it.

And well they should, because there’s nothing worse in politics than disarray, as wayward moderate Republicans will likely discover in 2012. What 2010 showed was that deficits and debt are dominating our politics like never before. Democrats haven’t come to grips with that. Like Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) yesterday, they castigate the Ryan plan for ending Medicare “as we know it.” Yet they have no plan of their own.

One can criticize the Ryan plan from a number of perspectives, but at least it’s moving in the right direction. If Republicans stay on course, they should do well in 2012. Columnists like the Post’s E.J. Dionne may continue to delude themselves into thinking that NY-26 marked the end of the Tea Party. I doubt it. But if he’s right, we’re really in trouble.

No, Paul Ryan Really Doesn’t Cut Pentagon Spending

Last week I expressed my disappointment with Paul Ryan’s budget plan, specifically about his unwillingness to cut military spending. Some people think that he does cut spending through his acceptance of Secretary Gates’s $78 in “cuts.” (see, for example, Sen. John Sununu; Sen. Joseph Lieberman, AEI’s Gary Schmitt and Tom Donnelly; and the Heritage Foundation’s Baker Spring).

So either I am wrong, or they are. Let me try to set the record straight.

First, all of Ryan’s other savings – savings which I support – were projected either against the Obama administration’s FY 2012 budget or against the current budget baseline. For example, according to Ryan’s own “Key Facts” his plan “Cuts $6.2 trillion in government spending over the next decade compared to the President’s budget, and $5.8 trillion relative to the current-policy baseline.” With respect to military spending, however, Ryan’s plan basically follows the Obama/Gates budget, proposing to spend a staggering $670.9 billion in FY 2012. The Obama administration’s DoD budget request for FY 2012 – including the Pentagon’s base budget plus overseas contingency operations (OCO) – totals $670.9 billion as well.  Of course, that total leaves out national defense spending tucked away in other departments (including nuclear weapons spending in the Department of Energy). Total national defense spending in FY 2012 will top $700 billion. I stand by my earlier assertion that the Pentagon’s budget escapes from Ryan’s budget axe “essentially unscathed.”

Ryan and others claim that military spending has already been cut, hence the decision to embrace this portion of the president’s budget. Sen. Lieberman explained to Bloomberg news, “To a certain extent, Secretary Gates has enabled us at least temporarily to take defense off the table because he has initiated his own round of defense cuts.”

“To a certain extent” is doing a lot of work in that statement. In fact, Gates and Obama do not cut military spending.

First, they don’t claim to do so. These supposed cuts are only “cuts” in Washington-speak. The Pentagon’s base budget under both the Ryan and Obama plans will increase 1 percent in real, inflation-adjusted terms. See the table below, recreated by my colleague Charles Zakaib from the official DoD budget request.

Second, Ryan claims that Gates’s “exhaustive review of the Pentagon’s budget” identified $178 billion in savings. It does nothing of the sort. By Ryan’s own admission, taxpayers will see only $78 billion of these; the other $100 billion are to be “reinvested” elsewhere in the Pentagon. (They’re always “investments” when you’re spending the taxpayers’ money, even when Republicans do it.)

So we’re really talking about $78 billion toward deficit reduction over the next five years, or approximately 2.6 percent of the Pentagon’s base budget (excluding the wars) over that same period. With all due respect, that isn’t a bold plan for reducing the crushing burden of spending and debt; that’s a rounding error.

What’s more, it is highly unlikely that these savings will materialize. Many of these efficiencies involve consolidation of commands – something that Congress has already balked at – and unspecified savings that are relatively easy to identify, but extremely difficult to implement.

But if, by some miracle, Robert Gates’s successor(s) manage to get them passed by Congress, those savings won’t actually be dedicated to deficit reduction: they will be completely devoured by spending on the wars. This is the greatest sham of all. Charles Knight at the Project on Defense Alternatives (and a key contributor to the Sustainable Defense Task Force, of which I was also a member) explains:

For several years now White House budget projections have included a “placeholder for outyear overseas contingency operations” most of which are accounted for by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This placeholder number has been and remains $50 billion. Every year actual OCO (overseas contingency operations) spending turns out to be several times that number. FY11′s OCO is $159 billion and FY12′s is $118 billion.

Adjusting for the effect of the new OCO for FY12, the $68 billion budgeted above the placeholder of $50 billion eats up most of the $78 billion in Pentagon cuts that Secretary Gates offered up in January to fiscal responsibility….The remaining $8 billion (and much more) will go to the war budgets when reality collides with placeholder projections.

On 14 February Pentagon Comptroller Hale confirmed that the $50 billion placeholders for FY13 and beyond was the “best we can do.” Others make an attempt to be more realistic. The high tech industry association called Tech America annually projects DoD budgets for ten years out. In their 2010 projection they estimate that OCO spending will be $102 billion in FY13, $69 billion in FY14 and $57 billion in FY15. When we subtract the $50 billion placeholder for each of those years and total the remainder we find that the Pentagon is likely to spend $78 billion more in the years FY13 through FY15 than in the White House budget projections.

I hope that I’m proved wrong. I hope that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are brought to a close. I hope that the Congress gets serious about tackling Pentagon waste, and stops treating the military budget as an elaborate jobs program. I hope that our brave men and women in uniform get the hardware, equipment, and training that they need, and that Americans get the “defense budget” that they deserve. But if past history is any guide, the Pentagon’s budget will continue to climb, other countries around the world will continue to free ride on Uncle Sam’s largesse, and U.S. taxpayers will be left to foot the bill.

Budget Follies

Today POLITICO Arena asks:

Is the Obama budget a serious stab at deficit reduction? And do congressional Republicans have any credibility in knocking the budget plan since, other than Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.), they have not detailed many cuts that would seriously slice the deficit?

My response:

It’s Valentine’s Day and love is in the air, especially on Capitol Hill where Congress anxiously awaits the 10:00 a.m. arrival of the president’s FY 2012 budget. It should be well shredded by noon.

And as it is, across the land we’ll be hearing the cries of “Not me, please, not my sinecure” – no more plaintively than from the minions of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. How will the average Chicago Bears fan endure without the latest BBC soap – excuse me, Masterpiece Theatre production?

But if that should come to pass, woe be unto those CPB congressional supporters who survived the November shellacking, the very ones who brought us to this sorry state by failing, for the first time in our history, to pass a single spending bill. Hell hath no fury like that of an NPR patron scorned.

Bright Spots in Fiscal Commission Report

President Obama’s Fiscal Commission has produced a serious and sobering analysis of the government’s budget mess, and it provides some of the needed solutions. Three of the report’s main themes are on target: the need to make government leaner, the need to cut business taxes to generate economic growth, and the need to impose tighter budget rules to discipline spending.

The report rejects the view of many Democratic leaders that the welfare state built over the last 80 years must be defended against any and all budget cuts. “Every aspect of the discretionary budget must be scrutinized, no agency can be off limits, and no program that spends too much or achieves too little can be spared. The federal government can and must adapt to the 21st century by transforming itself into a leaner and more efficient operation.” How lean the government should be, and how many agencies to eliminate, will be the central fiscal debate in coming years. Downsizing government is the order of the day.

The report recognizes the need to spur economic growth, particularly by cutting the corporate tax rate. “The corporate income tax, meanwhile, hurts America’s ability to compete… statutory rates in the U.S. are significantly higher than the average for industrialized countries … and our method of taxing foreign income is outside the norm…. the current system puts U.S. corporations at a competitive disadvantage against their foreign competitors.” The report recommends cutting the 35 percent federal corporate tax rate to 28 percent or less to respond to the Global Tax Revolution and to “make America the best place to start a business and create jobs.”

Finally, the report suggests that Congress impose new procedures to enforce budget restraint. However, the rules suggested by the commission are complex and not tight enough. It would be simpler and more powerful to impose a cap on overall federal spending. For example, a law could require that the government’s overall budget not grow faster than general inflation each year else the president would sequester spending across-the-board. Such a cap would be easy for the public to understand and enforce.

In sum, the report provides a useful menu of reform options that incoming members of a more conservative Congress can pursue next year. We need bigger spending cuts than the commission has laid out—as I’ve outlined in this balanced-budget plan—but the commission deserves credit for spurring a national discussion on how to downsize the federal government.

What Spending Should the GOP Cut?

Congratulations to the wave of Republicans who successfully ran on promises to tackle rising government debt and cut the hugely bloated federal budget. On the campaign trail, most candidates were not very specific about how they would cut the budget, but when they come to Washington they will be looking for good reform targets.

Newcomers to Congress can find a wealth of budget-cutting ideas in recent plans by various D.C. think tanks:

Cato’s website, www.downsizinggovernment.org, also provides a treasure trove of spending cuts, and I will be publishing a detailed budget-reform plan in coming days. 

Some of the above budget plans include tax increases, but voters gave a resounding message yesterday that they want Congress to focus on cutting spending, not raising taxes.

Out of the starting gate next year, fiscal reformers in Congress should push for an across-the-board cut to discretionary spending for the rest of the current fiscal year. One approach would be for House leaders to propose a continuing resolution that extends spending at last year’s levels, less some substantial percentage cut applied to every program.

For the upcoming fiscal year of 2012, reformers need to carefully target some major program cuts and eliminations. The president and the Democrats in the Senate will likely resist proposed cuts, but the point is to further the national debate that has begun about the proper size and scope of the federal government.

Some initial targets for GOP reformers, with rough annual savings, could include: community development subsidies ($15 billion), public housing subsidies ($9 billion), urban transit subsidies ($9 billion), and foreign development aid ($18 billion). On the entitlement side, initial cuts could include raising the retirement age for Social Security and introducing progressive price indexing to reduce the growth rate of future benefits.

We will not get federal spending under control unless we begin a national discussion about specific cuts. And we won’t get that discussion unless enough members of Congress start pushing for specific cuts. Ronald Reagan was able to make substantial cuts to state grants in the early 1980s because policymakers had discussed such reforms throughout the 1970s. Republicans in the mid-1990s were able to reform welfare because of the extended debate on the issue that preceded it.

The electorate wants spending cuts, and they will support the policymakers who take the lead on cuts if they are pursued in a forthright and serious-minded manner.

Cheap Talk from a Fiscal Commissioner

The president’s fiscal reform commission started off with some breathtaking chutzpah from Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-ND):

Rising federal debt is like a tsunami that could swamp the country at any moment…Our economic strength and security is on the line. Now is the time to act. And we need everyone, Democrats and Republicans, working together on a solution.

If now is the time to act, why did Sen. Conrad just pass a budget plan out of his committee that promises massive spending, deficits, and debt?

From a transcript of Conrad’s opening remarks:

I personally believe that saying, ‘everything is on the table’ is critical. I hope none of us will take things off the table prematurely, because I think it is clear it’s going to take dramatic changes on the spending side of the ledger, and it’s going to take changes on the revenue side of the ledger.

Does Sen. Conrad consider farm subsidies to be on the table? In February, the Wall Street Journal exposed Conrad as a hypocritical big spender. For example, Conrad doesn’t miss an opportunity to shower his farm constituents with federal largesse:

He has been a defender of the state’s grain farmers ever since [his election to the Senate in 1986]. He voted last April against a proposal to cap federal payments to the nation’s farmers at $250,000 per farmer per year, a measure that Mr. Conrad criticized as disastrous but that supporters said would have saved $1 billion a year.

He also helped draft a five-year, $300 billion farm bill in 2008 that boosted overall farm subsidies. The bill created a $3.8 billion emergency “trust fund” for farmers who lose crops or livestock to natural disasters, which was Mr. Conrad’s idea. Since 2008, North Dakota ranchers have received $23 million under the fund, second only to Texas.

What about federal entitlement programs, which represent the biggest budgetary threat going forward?

In 2003, Mr. Conrad joined most Democratic senators to support Mr. Bush’s plan to provide Medicare prescription-drug coverage to seniors, at a cost of around $40 billion a year. The plan required Congress to scrap the spending controls Mr. Conrad once championed. Republicans won the votes of Mr. Conrad and other rural senators by agreeing to expand the program by pumping $25 billion more into rural hospitals and doctors over 10 years.

Then there’s that health care “reform” bill Conrad just voted for, which will cost an estimated $2.6 trillion once fully implemented.

Not to be outdone, the president had his own galling comments:

Flanked by the co-chairmen of the new commission, Obama challenged the two parties to join in taking a “hard look” at the growing gap between what the government spends and raises in revenue, and to “think more about the next generation than the next election.”

The “growing gap” the president cites is one of his own doing. The following chart shows the projected gap between spending and revenues according to the Congressional Budget Office’s analysis of the president’s latest budget proposal:

The chart shows that revenues are already set to consume a larger share of the economy. The problem is that spending is on an elevator going up.

The politicians with the most power in Washington are precisely the ones pretending that they are powerless to steer the nation away from a looming fiscal disaster. Their claims are total, utter, complete nonsense. Both Obama and Conrad could have proposed budgets this year that actually cut spending to reduce the deficit. Both chose not to. They are the ones fueling the “tsunami.” They are the ones who don’t have the guts to cut off this generation’s subsidy recipients for the sake of the next generation. It’s that simple.