Jonathan Chait

Domestic Spending And The Road To Nowhere

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Last Spring, Republicans threatened to shut down the federal government in order to force domestic spending cuts. House Speaker John Boehner managed to pass a bill. But a subsequent CBO analysis found the immediate savings were quite small. Conservatives went ballistic and vowed they won't get fooled again.

That's the background to the current debt ceiling impasse. Boehner is again trying to round up distrustful right-wingers. Last evening, he suffered a setback when the Congressional Budget Office analyzed Boehner's plan, and found that it cuts spending by about $150 billion less than Boehner claims. Boehner has pulled his bill and is frantically reworking it. No doubt this only deepens the suspicions of the right that any cuts in the deal must be phony.

In reality, the reason Boehner's bill fell short is that the cuts in the last budget deal were, in fact, quite deep. They didn't have a huge immediate effect, but they lowered the long-term spending baseline. As a result, Boehner's new bill saves less money compared to the new, lower baseline that he created. So the reality of the situation is that spending is getting lower and lower. To the right-wing mind, it appears to be a situation in which conservatives keep getting fooled into accepting spending cuts that don't materialize.

I find Boehner's reaction pretty revealing. Here he has discovered that his plan will reduce spending on domestic discretionary programs by less than he expected because it was already scheduled to spend less than he expected. One reaction might be to conclude that the level of cuts needed to domestic discretionary spending was therefore less than he had previously believed. I suspect that line of thinking received not a moment's consideration. Instead Boehner followed his party's consistent impulse to simply ratchet down domestic discretionary spending more.

The larger question here is, what level of domestic discretionary spending do Republicans find appropriate? I'm familiar with the party's thinking on defense spending (more!), Social Security and Medicare (privatize and cut!), as well as taxes and regulation. But, despite following conservative thought quite closely, I'm fairly unclear as to whether the party thinks we're spending way too much on non-entitlement programs -- whether there's any defined endpoint, or simply a goal of cutting as much as politically feasible forever. The actual impact of Republican budgets here is things like slashing funding on transportation infrastructure or food inspectors.  Yet you almost never see conservative argue for slashing those programs.

Conservatives believe in general that the federal budget is filled with waste. But do they think this is the waste? Do they think the waste is elsewhere but Republicans just cut worthwhile programs instead? Or (this is the answer I suspect to be the closest to reality) do the vast majority of even movement conservative figures simply pay no attention to the details of the Republican domestic budgets?

The deeper problem here is the degree to which the domestic discretionary spending budget has been progressively squeezed:

It's the most vulnerable part of the federal budget simply because it's a catch-all category of everything that isn't entitlements and defense. The individual programs within it may be popular, but there are so many of them it is hard to mobilize support for it. Liberals have drawn their line at defending entitlement spending. As a result, the argument is between one side that wants to cut this category, and another that wants to eviscerate it.

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