Tag: spending cuts

John Boehner’s Spending and Debt Promise

House Speaker John Boehner has promised to tie substantial spending cuts to upcoming debt-limit legislation. He said spending cuts will have to be at least as large as the dollar value of the allowed debt increase. Thus, if the legislation increased the legal debt limit by $2 trillion, then Congress would have to cut spending over time by at least $2 trillion.

How can we be sure that spending cuts are real?

There are only two types of solid and tough-to-reverse spending cuts—legislated changes to reduce entitlement benefit levels and complete termination of discretionary programs. Republicans will have to define what time period they are talking about, but let’s assume it’s the standard 10-year budget window.

  • Entitlements: The legislation, for example, could change the indexing formula for initial Social Security benefits from wages to prices. The Congressional Budget Office says that change would reduce spending by $137 billion over 10 years (2012-2021). Other options include raising the retirement age for Social Security and raising deductibles for Medicare.
  • Discretionary: Each session of Congress decides the following year’s discretionary spending. Promises of discretionary spending cuts beyond one year are meaningless. Thus, the various promises in Republican and Democratic budget plans to freeze various parts of discretionary spending through 2021 or reduce spending to 2008 levels over the long term have no weight. Those are not real cuts.

The only way to get real cuts in discretionary spending—cuts that would be tough to reverse out in later years—is complete program termination and repeal of the program’s authorization. That way, policymakers in future years would generally need at least 60 votes in the Senate to reinstate the spending.

Thus, if the GOP promises to save $50 billion over 10 years by reducing the levels of Title 1 grants to the states for K-12 schools, that is not a real and solid cut. However, if they pass a law to repeal Title 1 spending altogether, that cut may well be sustained over the long term.

To make spending cuts even more secure, the GOP should also insist on a statutory cap on overall outlays with a supermajority requirement to break, as I’ve outlined here. For program termination ideas, see www.DownsizingGovernment.org.

In sum, the GOP needs to ensure that spending cuts tied to the debt-limit vote are either:

  1. Changes to entitlement laws to reduce benefit levels, or
  2. Discretionary program terminations.

    Promises to hold down future discretionary spending levels and partial program trims are not real spending cuts.

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    Public Choice and Spending Cuts

    The Institute for Humane Studies Learn Liberty project continues to offer clear-headed analysis in video form. The latest effort features Ben Powell of Suffolk University explaining the concept of concentrated benefits and diffuse costs in the context of ongoing budget fights.

    Cato recently produced two short videos on complementary aspects of the budget fights. For a more detailed treatment of many aspects of public choice, get your free (cheap!) copy of Cato’s excellent book, Government Failure: A Primer in Public Choice.

    Lobbying Wolves on the Prowl

    The other day I noted that the budget cuts agreed to last week contained lots of familiar faces. Many of the agencies and programs getting a trim were also cut in 1995 in a rescissions package put together by Gingrich Republicans. In the fifteen intervening years, federal spending exploded across the board, which means that an occasional trim job doesn’t accomplish much if the goal is to limit government.

    The reason why is that if the scope of government activities isn’t curtailed, the cuts will be short-lived. As long as the agencies and their programs remain, special interests won’t stop agitating Congress to continue, or more likely, increase, funding.

    A recent article in The Hill reports that lobbyists are already hard at work:

    Groups that advocate for everything from more foreign aid to bolstering the nation’s transportation system saw several of their favorite government programs suffer deep spending cuts in the fiscal year 2011 budget deal.

    With millions of dollars now axed from what they consider key federal initiatives, groups are planning to redouble their efforts and lobby to restore as much funding as possible in next year’s budget.

    (Note to reporter: A lot of adjectives could be used to describe the spending cuts. “Deep” is not one of them.)

    A fellow who lobbies for foreign aid argues that cutting it won’t balance the budget and that “We need to be planting the seeds for future economic prosperity around the world.” It’s true that even eliminating foreign aid wouldn’t balance the budget, but every little bit helps. But what’s striking is his arrogant pronouncement that “we” (taxpayers) need to be forced by the federal government to send our money abroad for the causes he fancies.

    A lobbyist with the National League of Cities is relieved that the GOP didn’t get the small cut in local handouts that were originally proposed, but is nonetheless concerned about the “anti-spending climate in Washington”:

    ‘We’re talking about staff layoffs at the city level. Cities are also going to have completely reorganize their budgets mid-year and prioritize some things out.’

    ‘In this environment, the numbers from fiscal year 2011 might be the new baseline but our message isn’t going to change,’ Wallace said. ‘We’re focusing on those local programs that create jobs and spur economic growth.’

    Cities prioritizing spending? Heaven forbid. Suck more money out of the private sector in order to save bureaucratic deadweight in local government? That doesn’t sound like a recipe for economic growth to me. (See here for more on the problems with federal subsidies to state and local governments.)

    Then there are the transportation lobbyists. These folks would probably argue that a giant escalator to nowhere would be a wise use of taxpayer money:

    Dean’s group is lamenting spending cuts made to the high-speed rail program, transit security grants as well as funding for “fixed guideway” projects, which include commuter trains, cable cars and ferryboats among other public transit systems.

    For the fans of The Simpsons who didn’t catch the escalator reference, see this link for my feelings on government-funded rail projects. (Fans and non-fans should check out these essays on urban transit subsidies and high-speed rail.)

    In Washington, it’s the squeaky wheel that gets greased. Lobbyists for government programs exist to make sure that Congress hears their wheel squeaking. Yes, the deck is stacked against those who are forced to foot the bill, but if taxpayers want federal agencies and their programs to get more than a trimming every fifteen years or so, now is the time to make a lot more noise.

    Your Tax Dollars at Work (1)

    The District of Columbia pays outside lobbyists hundreds of thousands of dollars, but its top in-house lobbyist, who heads a staff of nine, doesn’t know about them:

    The District pays outside lobbyists, who were hired when Adrian M. Fenty (D) served as mayor, but their work has attracted little notice.

    U.S. Senate records show that Mitch Butler — a former Interior Department official in the Bush administration — has lobbied on behalf of the District since October 2009 on “public lands issues” and “land development.” Through the end of 2010, the city paid Butler at least $100,000 for his efforts.

    Separately, the D.C. Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning & Economic Development has paid the firm Van Ness Feldman $200,000 since November 2009 for “Anacostia Waterfront Initiative appropriations, St. Elizabeths development matters and federal land transfers,” according to registration forms.

    Neither [Del. Eleanor Holmes] Norton nor Janene D. Jackson, the director of the District’s Office of Policy and Legislative Affairs, was aware the city had lobbyists on the payroll until they were informed by a reporter.

    Maybe if nobody knows about them, the city could save a few bucks by terminating their contracts. But then again, maybe the best lobbyists are the ones who slip money silently out of the appropriations process and then melt away in the night, drawing no attention to themselves.

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