The good news out of Washington is that conservative House members, including a number of newcomers, appear to be stiffening GOP leaders’ resolve to cut federal spending.
The bad news? That those leaders needed additional steel in the first place.
Many of the millions of Americans who voted for Republicans last year, shifting power in the House away from Democrats on a historic scale, did so despite harboring worries that the new GOP majority wouldn’t deliver on its lofty promises.
It was only four years earlier, these voters remembered, that they’d cast out Republicans who had proven not to be fiscal conservatives. Worries remained, particularly among independents, that Republicans might fall off the wagon again if given the chance.
It’s safe to say those who voted Republican anyway found the alternative — two more years of Speaker Nancy Pelosi — untenable. The balloting was less a celebration of Republicans than “a restraining order” on Democrats, as P.J. O’Rourke wrote in an election-eve essay in the Weekly Standard titled “They Hate Our Guts.”
That said, Republicans’ actions until late last week threatened to those nagging doubts in voters’ minds into reality.
Many conservatives groused when Kentucky’s Hal Rogers was reinstalled as Appropriations chairman even though the committee was far too spendthrift when he last presided over it. On cue, Rogers’ initial proposal for the rest of the fiscal year — which ends Sept. 30, and whose budget is an open issue because Democrats didn’t pass spending bills last year — included just $35 billion in cuts.
That’s less than 1 percent of this year’s spending, which the Congressional Budget Office recently projected at $3.7 trillion.
And if these cuts sound like less than what Republicans promised during the 2010 campaign, you’re right. The pledge was “at least $100 billion.”
Republicans might — might — have had an argument had they tried to prorate the $100 billion in cuts from this year’s budget, and then taken the full amount from next year’s budget. Then, they might — might — have argued they didn’t anticipate Democrats’ dropping the budgetary ball, and could do only so much in the rest of 2011. But that’s not what they did at first.
As of Friday, it appeared deeper cuts were on the way: $170 billion over 12 months, though it was still unclear as of this writing how much would come in this year’s budget.
How refreshing to see a spending debate in Congress lead to more cuts, not fewer. The freshman lawmakers who pushed their leaders this way are doing right by their voters.
But there’s more to be done. The specific promise was to “cut government spending to pre-stimulus, pre-bailout levels.” That pledge was generally considered a reference to 2008 (although that year did include a $152 billion stimulus).
In 2008, the federal government spent just less than $3 trillion. The last I checked, the difference between that and this year’s $3.7 trillion is a lot more than $100 billion.
Seven times more, in fact.
Now, the pledge may have referred only to discretionary spending, which is a fraction of total federal outlays. But that’s a typically D.C. way of thinking about spending. When families sit around the kitchen table to talk about tightening the belt, as so many members of Congress described last year as candidates, they don’t say, “Well, the rent went up, and so did the car insurance, and our property taxes. But those are mandatory expenses, so we’ll just borrow the money to pay for those increases and only worry about budgeting when it comes to everything else.”
No, sooner or later, you have to look at the total amount you’re spending. And if there are mandatory items you can’t cut, then you cut deeper where you can to make up for them.
Now, back to those 2008 spending levels. Even a prorated return, over the rest of this fiscal year, would mean some $360 billion in cuts.
And even then, we would add $1.1 trillion to our debt…
…which would still grow to more than $14.5 trillion…
…which would still be about $4.4 trillion more than it was after 2008.
At such heights — or maybe I should say depths — we don’t need supposed fiscal conservatives to restrain their restraint.
– By Kyle Wingfield
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