Tag: spending cuts

Sequestration and Voter Ignorance

Sheldon Richman and I spent a lot of time last week running through numbers from the Congressional Budget Office in order to gauge sequestration’s effect on federal spending. In the resulting column, Richman lays out the numbers and asks a pertinent question: How the $#!?% is the average voter supposed to have a clue about this stuff? 

From Richman’s column: 

I subjected myself to this pain because I’m a professional masochist. I’m paid to do it. How many people who are not so rewarded are likely to search for, locate, and download CBO spreadsheets to see the numbers for themselves? Very few, I’ll bet. And who can blame those who won’t? They have families, friends, communities, and jobs to attend to — matters they actually affect through their actions. But if most people don’t have time or incentive to learn the facts about this one issue (never mind all the others) — and if the news media can’t be counted on to tell the plain story — how can Americans fill the role of “informed voters” that democracy in theory requires? 

Next year there will be congressional elections. If a voter doesn’t know the facts about the budget, she won’t be able to judge the sequestration issue. And if she can’t do that, how can she intelligently decide which congressional candidate to vote for? 

Most people would say that voting for Congress is important, so why don’t they spend time doing this necessary research? Because they know that the effort would have no real payoff. Time is scarce, and there are always other uses of one’s time that really will make a difference. The average congressional district has 600,000 residents, three-quarters of whom are of voting age. No single vote will determine who gets elected or what policies are enacted — that is, no matter what you do, the outcome will be the same. And should your favorite candidate win and enact his program, you would pay only a tiny fraction of the total cost of that candidate’s policies; most of the cost would fall on others. So why exert much effort?

And that’s why Democrats (and Republicans devoted to the U.S. military empire) have spent the past few weeks trying to scare the pants off of voters. It remains to be seen if their efforts will pay political dividends. Saturday Night Live’s mocking of the administration’s sky-is-falling posture is a hopeful indication that the anti-spending cuts politicians might have overplayed their hand. Keep in mind, however, that we’re only talking about $44 billion in spending cuts versus $3.5 trillion in total spending this year. The cuts would have to be multiplied by a factor of almost twenty just to balance the budget. 

Imagine the hysteria if that were on the table. 

Those of us who would prefer to live under a vastly more limited federal government have our work cut out for us in convincing the average American that bigger isn’t always better

Herbert Hoover Was No Penny Pincher

In a story regarding federal budget cuts, the Washington Post reports: 

‘One of the last presidents to balance the budget was Herbert Hoover,’ [Rep. Peter] King added darkly, referring to the penny-pinching Republican blamed for deepening the Great Depression.

What a loaded and inaccurate statement! 

I just finished the fine new biography Coolidge by Amity Shlaes. Hoover plays a major part in the book as a long-time cabinet member of President Coolidge and his successor in the White House. Coolidge was about as frugal a president as we’ve had, and he dreaded that he would be followed by big-spender Hoover, who he knew would probably unravel his years of hard work at budget restraint. 

Coolidge fought against many new spending plans pushed in Congress, including flood control projects, farm subsidies, and higher veteran’s benefits. But Hoover worked behind the scenes during the Coolidge years to boost flood control spending. And when he became president, Hoover sadly gave into the farm lobbies and launched the first major subsidy schemes. 

In 1929 Hoover signed the Agricultural Marketing Act, which created the Federal Farm Board to subsidize agricultural cooperatives. I’ve noted that the scheme turned into a $500 million boondoggle, harming consumers and disrupting markets. 

As president, Coolidge worked long and hard to cut the federal budget to $3 billion and hold it at about that level from 1923 to 1929. But when he was president, Hoover jacked up the budget from $3.1 billion in 1929 to $4.7 billion in 1932. 

Shlaes concludes that Hoover “spent like a Democrat. But that spending hadn’t been enough to ensure even Hoover’s own reelection.” And contrary to the implication of the Washington Post, neither did Hoover’s big spending alleviate the Great Depression.

Are Spending Cuts Good Politics?

Grover Cleveland says “yes.”

Calvin Coolidge says “yes.”

Chris Edwards says “yes.” From Downsizing the Federal Government: 

Another myth is that policymakers cannot make budget cuts without a backlash from voters. Yet reform efforts in the 1990s did not lead to a voter rebuke. In 1996, the Republicans were denounced viciously when they were reforming welfare. But they stuck together and succeeded, and today the achievement is widely hailed. Also in the 1990s, the Republicans proposed reductions to many sensitive programs including Medicare, Medicaid, education, housing, and farm subsidies. In their budget plan for 1996, House Republicans voted to abolish more than 200 programs including whole departments and agencies. 

The Republicans who led on these reforms were not thrown out of office, despite many of them being specifically targeted for defeat in 1996. The most hardcore budget cutters in the 104th Congress were freshmen who were reelected with larger vote margins than they had received in 1994. They included John Shadegg and Matt Salmon of Arizona, Joe Scarborough of Florida, David McIntosh and Mark Souder of Indiana, Steve Largent and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, Mark Sanford of South Carolina, Van Hilleary of Tennessee, and Mark Neumann of Wisconsin. Indeed, many budget-cutting Republican freshman got reelected in districts that went for Bill Clinton on the presidential ticket in 1996. The high-profile leader of the House budget cutters, John Kasich (R-Ohio), consistently won reelection throughout the 1990s with two-to-one margins. In sum, cutting the budget can be good politics when done in a serious and up-front manner. 

Those Phantom Spending ‘Cuts’ from 2011

The Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold recently took a look at the $38 billion in spending cuts that Republicans and Democrats agreed to in 2011 in order to avoid a government shutdown. Fahrenthold estimates that $17 billion of those “cuts” were little more than budgetary gimmicks. For instance, $6 billion in authorized spending for the previous year’s decennial census were merely wiped off the books and counted as a “cut.” 

Fahrenthold’s piece is a good reminder of how unserious politicians from both parties are about cutting spending. But I want to make two additional points. 

First, real or not, let’s not forget that the $38 billion in “cuts” were a drop in the bucket that year compared to total spending, the deficit, and even interest on the debt: 

 

Second, unless entire agencies or programs are terminated, spending cuts will probably end up only being temporary. Following the 2011 agreement, I demonstrated this by noting that many of the programs that were cut were also cut in a 1995 deal: 

Agricultural Research Service, Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service, Rural Development programs, Women, Infants & Children, Foreign Agricultural Service, National Institute of Standards & Technology, National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, Economic Development Administration, National Telecommunications & Information Administration, Small Business Administration, State Department foreign aid, Fund for African Development, International Development assistance, Economic Support Fund, Peacekeeping Operations, Trade Development Agency, Army Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Reclamation, National Forest System, Appalachian Regional Commission, Department of Energy administration, Fossil Energy Research & Development, energy conservation programs, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, National Gallery of Art, Community Service Employment for Older Americans, National Institutes of Health, Centers for Disease Control, Low Income Home Energy Assistance, Administration on Aging, Youthbuild, Adult Education, programs for K-12 and higher education, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Federal Aviation Administration, Federal Highway Administration, rail subsidies, Federal Transit Administration, Financial Management Service, Veterans Affairs construction projects, Housing Counseling Assistance, public housing programs, Community Development Financial Institutions Funds, Corporation for National & Community Service, Legal Services Corporation, Environmental Protection Agency, National Aeronautics & Space Administration, and the National Science Foundation. 

They were all cut in 1995 under a rescissions package engineered by then-Speaker Newt Gingrich and cut last week in the budget agreement reached by Republican and Democratic leaders. 

The lesson here is that there’s a big difference between spending cuts and terminating entire agencies and their programs. Like the mythological Hydra, the stump has to be burned after the head is cut off or else it’ll grow back.

‘Unthinkable, Draconian’ Spending Cuts

It’s my job to advocate for spending cuts. It’s a job I’ve been doing in one form or another for over a decade. If I’ve ever experienced a victory, it must have been a pretty small one, because I can’t recall any.

So why do I persist?

For one, I’m a naturally optimistic person. And fueling that optimism is the press. I’m constantly reading about the possibility of spending cuts, and those articles usually say that the cuts would be major … or massive … or severe … or even draconian! The possibility sends a thrill up my leg.

Alas, the “draconian” spending cuts invariably turn out to be not-so-draconian after all. In fact, it’s often the case that reporters are talking about smaller spending increases rather than real spending cuts. Other times, the cuts are likely to only be temporary or come after years and years of increases.

In today’s example, a National Journal article reports that the “unthinkable” could happen: the fiscal 2013 sequestration cuts–just reduced and postponed by the fiscal cliff deal–might actually go into effect March 1st as scheduled:

Republicans and Democrats in the Senate appear to be coming to the same conclusion on spending, namely that once unthinkable, draconian cuts designed to force a more reasonable compromise may be much harder to undo than anyone ever imagined.

How “draconian” would these “unthinkable” cuts be? About $85 billion. To put that in context, the federal government will spend around $3,500 billion ($3.5 trillion) this year. The deficit alone is likely to approach or exceed $1 trillion (the federal government has run a deficit in excess of $1 trillion for four straight years).

If that’s draconian, what would the press call cutting enough spending just to balance the budget?

As we’ve been trying to demonstrate at DownsizingGovernment.org, spending cuts would be good for the country. I encourage journalists who cover federal policy to check out the site to see what real spending cuts are all about. It might cause you to have to find new adjectives to use to describe what Republicans and Democrats are really doing, but your readers would be better served–especially the wild-eyed optimists like me.

Boehner’s Bogus Debt Ceiling Line in the Sand

Speaker Boehner says that the House will not pass another increase in the debt ceiling unless the White House and congressional Democrats agree to cut spending by an equal or greater amount. That’s the same line in the sand that Boehner drew during the previous debt ceiling showdown in 2011.             

As I noted in a recent piece, the 2011 agreement to increase the debt ceiling accomplished no such thing: 

The deal that Republicans ultimately agreed to — The Budget Control Act of 2011 — promised to reduce the growth in spending over the next ten years by $917 billion. In exchange, the president got to increase the debt ceiling by $900 billion. According to the House Republican leadership, the trade was a victory because the debt increase was smaller than the spending cuts. Of course, that’s nonsense. Not only were there no real spending cuts, the federal debt has proceeded to jump another $1.8 trillion since the president signed the bill less than a year and a half ago. 

The other part of the deal hasn’t turned out any better. The BCA created a “Super Committee”, tasked with achieving $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction over ten years. When the committee inevitably failed, the agreement stipulated that the deficit reduction instead be achieved through a combination of automatic cuts to defense and non-defense spending (“sequestration”). Republicans and Democrats promptly made it clear that they would figure out a way to avoid the spending cuts. 

The sequestration spending cuts that Republicans and Democrats want to avoid allowed the president to raise the debt ceiling by another $1.2 trillion. In sum, the federal debt will have gone up $2.1 trillion in exchange for no spending cuts in the present and a promise to increase spending at a lower rate over the next ten years. 

There is zero chance that the Democrats would (or will) agree to a deal that seriously cut $1 for every $1 increase in the debt ceiling. Heck, I’d be shocked if a majority of Republicans would support it. The House Republican leadership obviously knows this—and it’s not like the GOP is prepared to “shoot the hostage” to begin with—so expect another debt ceiling increase with no substantive spending reforms.  

A Few Questions for Paul Krugman

I am not a budget expert, but I saw Paul Krugman interviewed on the PBS Newshour program last evening and had a few questions.

Here’s an excerpt from that interview:

PAUL KRUGMAN:

I guess I don’t know how you can be honest about what is actually going on in this country without sounding partisan. That’s the old line, right? The facts have a well-known liberal bias, because, right now, we’re in a world where deficits are a good thing and a little bit more inflation would also be a good thing.

PAUL SOLMAN:

A proposal that’s put him at odds with the man who hired him at Princeton, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke.

Tom Ashbrook asked him about it.

TOM ASHBROOK:

Ben Bernanke calls your proposal very reckless.

PAUL KRUGMAN:

Odd, because he made the same proposal himself 12 years ago for Japan.

(LAUGHTER)

PAUL KRUGMAN:

Those of us who have been calling for a bit more inflation are calling for 4 percent inflation, which is what we had back during the reign of Ronald Reagan in his second term. It didn’t seem that terrible to me at the time.

PAUL SOLMAN:

But we could be taking a big risk, right? You have no way of knowing whether or not the interest rate we’re going to have to offer to borrowers might change overnight, as it has often recently.

PAUL KRUGMAN:

Well, I am reasonably sure that isn’t going to happen until or unless the U.S. economy is really on the path to recovery. And that’s the point also when – by the way, when I will support the austerity. Once we no longer need that support to keep the economy afloat, that’s when you do want to start raising taxes and cutting spending, but not now.

A few questions for Mr. Krugman:

  1. I don’t know whether you agree with the proposition that we’re about $100 trillion in debt, but if we were, could we really afford to postpone (again) deep spending cuts? Wouldn’t  the time for cuts be … yesterday?
  2. You say that you would support spending cuts when the overall economy gathers more strength, but isn’t the record clear that the pols have neglected to reduce spending during previous periods of economic growth?
  3. What evidence leads you to believe the pols will act differently if economic growth were robust? Wouldn’t they seek to avoid the political pain of cuts and be seduced (again) by those who say the United States can “grow our way out of the debt problem”?

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