Republicans have announced their proposed spending cuts for the remainder of the 2011 fiscal year, but the press corps is hardly painting the whole picture — or even reporting the actual dollar amounts that Republicans would cut.
The Washington Post writes that these $32 billion in proposed cuts represent “an unprecedented rollback” that would require federal agencies to “immediately slash spending.” NPR reports that these $58 billion in “deep spending cuts” has thrown “another log on the bonfire of tensions” between House Republicans and Senate Democrats. The New York Times, truly walking to its own drummer, writes of the “seeming timidity” of these $32 billion in proposed cuts, while reporting in the same story that “Congressional Democrats criticized the Republican proposals as irresponsible,” saying “they would endanger the still precarious economic recovery.” And National Journal writes that these $74 billion in proposed cuts “would be the largest one-year reductions in decades” but would “fall short of the House Republicans’ campaign promise to roll back non-security discretionary spending to 2008 levels.”
So, what to make of all of this?
The National Journal’s claim notwithstanding, the Republicans are making good on their campaign promise to take the lead in cutting non-security discretionary spending back to 2008 levels. They have proposed to cut $58 billion from President Obama’s proposed spending over the last six months and 27 days of the 2011 fiscal year (from March 5 through September 30), which would return non-security discretionary spending to pre-Obama levels across that span.
House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan announced the proposed cuts, which he established as a floor, not a ceiling. House members will be allowed to propose even bigger cuts during the Republicans’ open amendment process, but they will not be allowed to propose smaller cuts than what Ryan has stipulated.
In 2008, non-security discretionary spending was $378 billion, or $32 billion a month. Under the GOP proposal, non-security discretionary spending would likewise be $32 billion a month for the last nearly seven months of fiscal-year 2011 — a whopping 25 percent cut from what President Obama proposed to spend in this vein over the same period.
Now, keep in mind that, in addition to this 25 percent difference, President Obama had already increased non-security discretionary spending by $253 billion through his economic “stimulus” package. In fact, during the 24 months that Obama has been in office, non-security discretionary spending has averaged $48 billion a month ($37 billion a month in base spending, $11 a month in “stimulus” spending) — or 50 percent more than under the Republican proposal. In other words, when it comes to such spending, money that lasts two years under Obama would last three years under the GOP.
So, why the widely varying accounts in the press? The widespread confusion stems from the failure of the recently departed Democratic Congress and the current Democratic White House to get a budget passed for the current fiscal year. The Democratic House, Senate, and White House instead resorted to stopgap measures to extend federal spending at 2010 levels through March 4. Because the fiscal year starts on October 1, this means that five months and four days’ worth of Democratic spending will already be in the books by the time the GOP spending cuts (if agreed to by the Democratic Senate and White House) could potentially take effect. Far from being a clean and tidy fiscal year, this one poses an accounting challenge.
President Obama’s proposal was to increase non-security discretionary spending to $478 billion in fiscal year 2011. In 2008, such spending totaled $378 billion. During the congressional campaign, Republicans promised to bring such spending back down to that 2008 level, an annual cut of $100 billion from the president’s proposal — and they will no doubt attempt to do so when Ryan proposes the 2012 House budget. But thanks to the Democrats’ budgetary negligence, Republicans now have the chance to propose spending cuts even before a new House of Representatives would generally be given a chance to act.
Fifty-seven percent of the 2011 fiscal year will remain after March 4. Since President Obama proposed to increase non-security discretionary spending by $100 billion in relation to 2008, Republicans’ proposal to return to 2008 spending levels after March 4 amounts to their proposing $57 billion (actually $58 billion) in spending cuts for the remainder of this fiscal year (57 or 58 percent of $100 billion), even before they set their sights on 2012 and their first opportunity to submit a budget of their own.
To be clear, non-security domestic spending in 2008 was $378 billion, and it would be $420 in 2011 even if the GOP cuts were to go into effect. But that’s because the GOP cuts could only go into effect after five months’ worth of money had already washed under the bridge at the rapid speed of Democratic spending. From March 5 forward, spending would slow to the gentler pace of 2008 rates.
The media outlets — like the Times and the Post — that are reporting only $32 billion in cuts aren’t comparing the GOP’s proposed spending with Obama’s proposed spending, but rather the GOP’s proposed spending with 2010 spending (even though we’re now in 2011). Moreover, they aren’t comparing non-security discretionary spending, but rather all discretionary spending. (On top of that, they’re mysteriously denying the GOP $4 billion in credit for its proposed spending cuts, even by these measures.) That’s fine (apart from the $4 billion), but if 2010 is the baseline, then Obama’s proposed 2011 discretionary spending should also be compared with that same baseline.
Obama’s proposal was to increase 2011 discretionary spending by $38 billion over 2010. So the swing between Obama’s $38 billion in proposed spending increases and the GOP’s reported $32 billion in proposed spending cuts is $70 billion. The only thing separating that figure from National Journal’s tally of $74 billion is the mysteriously missing $4 billion. What’s more, the only thing separating the National Journal’s figure of $74 billion from NPR’s figure of $58 billion is that the Republicans propose to spend $16 billion less on discretionary security spending than President Obama proposes we spend.
The key point in all of this is that, under the budgetary leadership of Paul Ryan, Republicans are making good on their campaign promise: Even before getting a chance to announce their own budget, they are proposing to cut non-security discretionary spending back down to 2008 levels — a full 25 percent beneath where President Obama wants that level of spending to be.