Jonathan Chait

The Limits Of Budget Cutting

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Max Bergmann notes that the House budget would cut funding for nuclear security:

House Republicans are choosing to significantly cut the National Nuclear Security Administration’s nonproliferation programs, the sole purpose of which is to prevent terrorists from getting their hands on loose nuclear weapons and materials. While Republicans have talked about the need to inflict pain in their budget, doing so in a way that increases the risk of the nuclear annihilation of an American city is perhaps taking the pledge too far.

House Republicans have proposed to cut funding for these programs by 22 percent or $647 million. Michelle Marchesano of the Partnership for Global Security warns:

"The US programs charged with securing fissile materials and thwarting terrorists’ efforts to acquire them are among the victims of this year’s federal budget fights. … Without appropriated budgets commensurate to program agendas, efforts to improve global nuclear material security will stall."

Now, you could say this reflects the perverse choices of the Congressional GOP, and you'd be right. But fundamentally, there's a deeper issue here. There just isn't a lot of waste in the federal budget. And if your premise is to craft a budget that's compatible with revenue levels that Republicans find acceptable (never mind ideal), then you're very quickly going to run into this problem. This is the case even if you have a lot of smart, serious people carefully considering priorities and budgeting on that basis. The Bowles-Simpson commission, for instance, had to pare back the federal budget enough to create even a chance of attracting GOP support in Congress, and it wound up doing thing like this:

The plan calls for a substantial reduction in federal employees.  A reduction in employees generally results in the government relying on more outside consultants to get the work done but, in addition to the recommended reductions-in-force, Bowles-Simpson also calls for a significant cuts in the use of contractors.

The combination of those two seems to indicate that the now smaller number of federal employees will have to do everything that was done before, that is, that they will have to be much more productive. But Bowles-Simpson also calls for a three-year freeze on federal employee salaries and that almost inevitably means an increasing number of federal workers will quit.   That will reduce rather than increase productivity as new and less experienced workers replace the more senior folks who will have left for greener pastures.

In other words, Bowles-Simpson projects substantial savings based on the expectation that a less experienced and much smaller federal workforce will be more productive and just as effective than the more experienced and larger workforce it replaces.  That makes absolutely no sense.

The commission wanted to find some non-vital government functions to eliminate, but it couldn't, so it wound up proposing a major reduction in the federal workforce while pretending this would have no impact on functionality. The fundamental problem here is that, if you want to maintain something even close to Bush-level tax rates, and you want to control the deficit, then you have to impose a lot of painful, counterproductive, and/or outright stupid budget cuts. That's why I think the only real way out is to play chicken with the Bush tax cuts and let Republicans force their total expiration.

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