Tag: spending cut

Budget Plans: Gang of Six and Senator Coburn

The “Gang of Six” senators has released an outline of budget reforms that would supposedly reduce deficits by $3.7 trillion over 10 years. Revenues would rise by at least $1 trillion, while spending would be theoretically trimmed by various procedural mechanisms. The plan promises to “strengthen the safety net,” “maintain investments,” and “maintain the basic structure” of Medicare and Medicaid, which doesn’t sound very reform-minded to me.

The Gang of Six plan is a grander version of Sen. Mitch McConnell’s recent debt-limit proposal, which was aimed at putting off any spending cuts. The Gang outline has a few specific cuts, but the document mainly consists of promises to restrain spending and raise taxes in the future.

I’m surprised that Sen. Tom Coburn supports the Gang plan because his office has just released a massive study chock-full of specific spending-cut ideas. The Gang plan is all about avoiding specifics, while Coburn’s plan has 621 pages of details.

Coburn’s “Back in Black” plan would reduce deficits by $9 trillion over the next decade. The plan includes some tax increases, but the core of the document is a line-by-line analysis of every department’s budget, with lists of programs to cut and terminate. The plan includes a wealth of useful information that will aid policymakers interested in cutting spending for years to come.

So congratulations to Roland, Joelle, and the whole Coburn team for their late nights spent pouring through the budget, and for their great job documenting their findings with more than 3,000 endnotes.

Every Senate and House office should perform a similar exercise of proposing specific cuts. The government faces a debt crisis, yet only Coburn, Sen. Rand Paul, and perhaps a few others in Congress have put any effort into identifying unneeded programs.

Look on the official websites of most members of Congress and you will see discussions in support of spending on education, seniors, energy, research, highways and many other activities. When members are in front of TV cameras, they sound like they take the debt crisis seriously, but most congressional websites reveal a different mindset where federal spending is always wonderful and helpful to society.

Coburn’s staff tells me that about a dozen staffers chipped in on its Back in Black effort in recent months. If other House and Senate offices went through such an exercise, it would help members clarify their positions about the role of government and help them think about spending trade-offs.

My summer homework assignment for every congressional office is to go through a Coburn/Paul-style budget downsizing exercise. That could lead to more serious spending debates and more concrete proposals than the generally meaningless bullets points issued by the Gang of Six.

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.

“The Largest Annual Spending Cut in Our History”?

In this week’s Britannica column, I look at the claims being made for the budget cuts in the weekend deal:

“The largest annual spending cut in our history,” President Obama said. Speaker of the House John Boehner called it the “largest real dollar spending cut in American history.” Saturday’s front-page, upper-right headline in the Washington Post proclaimed:

BIGGEST CUTS
IN U.S. HISTORY

The story went on to say that Obama “said the cuts would be painful but necessary.”

NPR’s Andrea Seabrook reported, “The Republicans got big, big cuts.”

And are they?

Please. It’s a cut of $38 billion in a budget of $3,819 billion. That’s 1 percent. That’s a rounding error in federal budgeting….

That same budget table shows that federal spending fell from $92.7 billion in 1945 to $55.2 billion in 1946, to $34.5 billion in 1947, and to $29.8 billion in 1948 (and all without any of the job losses that we’re told would result from modest reductions today). Check out also the drop in spending from 1919 to 1922, even larger in percentage terms….

The fundamental point here is that federal spending rose by more than a trillion dollars during Bush’s first seven years, and then by almost another trillion in barely three fiscal years. And then we had a titanic battle over whether to trim $38 billion.

The idea that the Democrats “have shown that they heard the message that government spends too much” or that the Republicans—the party that increased federal spending by a trillion dollars while nobody was looking during the Bush years—have “imposed a small-government agenda on Washington” is ludicrous.

Read it all here.

Slashing Popular Programs Contest

House Republicans proposed some (tiny) spending cuts this week and the Obama administration will likely propose some (tiny) cuts next week in the federal budget.

So get ready for a barrage of slasher stories! National Journal started us off yesterday with the headline “WH Slashes Heat for the Poor.”

Coming down the pike are dozens of stories about how policymakers are planning deep, vicious, and inhumane cuts that will undermine the foundations of the republic. A 5 percent cut to a program that has risen 50 percent in recent years will not be a simple “trim,” but a brutal, gouging “slash.”

Every single one of the upcoming cuts will be to “popular” programs. So policymakers will propose a $1 million cut to mohair subsidies, and the headline will be “Congress Slashes Popular Mohair Program.”

In reality, government spending has soared over the last decade, but I don’t want to spoil the fun. So let’s enjoy the coming crop of over-the-top slasher stories, and treat them as a genre of modern publishing art.

I propose a “Slasher Story of the Month” contest for February. Send me an email if you see a great slasher story, and I’ll get my crack assistant, Amy, to analyze the rhetorical content. The winning story will have the most frequent uses of “slash” and “popular” to describe the programs that the godless heathens in Congress and the White House plan to ransack and decimate.

(Bonus points for any editorial cartoon showing Attila the Hun with the word “GOP” on his helmet hacking away at a defenseless child with “nutrition subsidies” on her shirt).

Tea Party Isn’t Mellowing GOP Militarism

Lindsay Graham isn’t alone when he imagines an emerging “isolationist wing” of the Republican Congress. Pundits have lately both lamented and celebrated the arrival of a Tea Party foreign policy, where deficit fears restrain military adventures and Pentagon spending.

I wish there were such a thing. My op-ed in yesterday’s Philadelphia Inquirer shows that there isn’t.  I report there on research that I did (really research that intern Matt Fay did) on support among Republicans in the House and Senate for cutting defense spending and getting out of Afghanistan. I found little.

I also tested the idea that the Tea Party is restraining Republican militarism, by comparing the 101 freshmen that largely claim adherence to that movement to other Republican members. Freshmen are not more dovish than the rest, suggesting that the Tea Party reflects Republican politics more than it guides it. A post I put up yesterday on the National Interest’s Skeptics blog illustrates this point with charts.

As Tad DeHaven notes, Congressional Republicans, including leaders in both Houses, have increasingly said that they would support defense cuts as part of a deficit reduction package. But those taking that position remain a minority of their party–fifteen percent by a generous accounting, comprising roughly equal fractions of new and old members. And the cuts that the minority of Republican want are likely to be cosmetic, trimming fat and chasing efficiencies, not taming the beast by taking on less missions and cutting force structure. For these reasons, it’s not surprising that the symbolic spending cut resolution up for a House vote Tuesday exempts the nearly two-thirds of domestic spending labeled as “security,” as I discussed in another Skeptics post.

GOP support for indefinite war in Afghanistan is stronger. Only ten Congressional Republicans are obviously against that war, and not one is a Senator or a freshman. That last bit bears repeating: none of the 101 new Republican members of the House and Senate are clearly against the war in Afghanistan.

The difference between new and old Republicans on these issues is that the new members are less likely to have firm positions. They got elected largely without expressing coherent views on defense issues. Since then, many seem to be reading the tea-leaves and keeping quiet about those matters.  But they will soon be tied into positions as they justify votes. So the coming months are crucial in determining how a big chunk of Republicans vote for some time.

I am not optimistic that many will side with those of us that would like to vastly scale back our foreign policy. In the Skeptics post I explain why:

The GOP has been in the habit, probably since the 1970s, of out-hawking the Democrats and equating military aggressiveness with support for the military and American virtue. Whether that is winning political strategy I’m not sure (yes in 2004, no in 2008), but it is at least a powerful habit, reinforced by decades of neoconservative warbling, whose authors are now ensconced in the nation’s most prominent op-ed pages and think tanks.

Beyond that, military spending bestows its munificence in many districts, generating bipartisan support. But, on the left, the prospect of spending caps creates countervailing interests. Caps force defenders of other domestic spending to be dovish on defense. Health care’s cost competes with the Navy’s, especially under budget caps. That’s not as issue on the right.

The most important force keeping Republican fond of military adventure, however, is common to Democrats: international opportunity. We have expansive foreign policies because we can. Balancing is weak. The costs of adventurism are few and diffuse. For Europeans alive 100 years ago, foreign policy failures could bring conquest and mass death. Even successful wars would kill many sons and consume a considerable portion of societal wealth. For most Americans, especially since the draft ended, foreign policy disasters bring marginally higher tax rates. Ideologies justifying expansive policies—liberal internationalism on the left, neoconservatism on the right—grow popular because they justify the behavior this structure allows.

Doves say that the United States cannot afford its foreign policy. The problem is that it can, even when recessions make the load a bit harder to bear. Unsustainable things end. The United States can afford to do all sorts of foolish things.

The President’s Fiscal Commission: It’s a Start

Today POLITICO Arena asks

Will implementing President Obama’s Fiscal Commission recommendations require that everyone take a hit?

My response (with tax insights from Jagadeesh Gokhale):

President Obama’s Fiscal Commission Report offers a useful start in reducing our budget deficits and national debt, but it hardly goes far enough. As several of my Cato colleagues have just noted here, here, here, and here, the report recognizes, to its credit, that our corporate income tax structure puts U.S. corporations at a considerable competitive disadvantage against their foreign competitors. And the report keeps military spending cuts on the table, even if there is much more to be cut. Yet by proposing a reduction in government spending from 24.3 percent of GDP today to 21.8 percent over the next 15 years – total federal spending as recently as 2000 was just 18.4 percent of GDP – it plays the old Washington game of calling a slower increase than previously projected a “cut.”

As for taxes, this report should be read in the context of a powerful argument in last Friday’s Wall Street Journal to the effect that over the past six decades, tax revenues as a percentage of GDP have averaged just under 19 percent, regardless of the top marginal personal income tax rate or whether taxes were cut or raised. What this suggests is that low tax rates spur income growth to leave the government’s revenues undiminished over the long-term. High tax rates do the opposite. It doesn’t take a large leap of faith to believe that this effect would be stronger for those who earn more and pay more in taxes. Indeed, among high earners are the nation’s business leaders – innovators who create new products and jobs – who would respond positively to the growth opportunity provided by a stable, low-tax-rate environment.  So those who believe that we help ourselves by more heavily taxing the rich need to ask themselves whether it might not be better to cut rates and keep them stable instead. Wouldn’t that promote a robust economy and lift all boats – with the government continuing to generate 19 percent in revenues?

None of this has anything to do, of course, with whether our current out-of-control federal government is constitutionally authorized to do all it is doing. But it’s a start toward returning the government to within its constitutional limits. Had those limits been respected – as the Framers understood, unlike New Deal progressives – we wouldn’t be in this mess.

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.