The draft proposal offered last week by the chairmen of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform was only the first shot in what is expected to be a very long war over how to eliminate the federal deficit and begin paying down our national debt. That debt already exceeds $13.7 trillion, and if the unfunded liabilities of Social Security and Medicare are included, it actually tops $100 trillion.
Obviously, Republicans would not want to embrace every one of the commission’s recommendations, especially the tax hikes. Even so, the commission’s report does show the magnitude of the cuts actually needed to reduce spending to even 21 percent of GDP (and it really should go lower). But if the draft proposal by chairmen Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson accomplishes nothing else, it has already done a service by showing just how feeble the GOP’s commitment to deficit reduction really is.
Just compare what Bowles and Simpson recommend to what Republicans have been talking about. Bowles and Simpson would reduce discretionary spending by $1.4 trillion over ten years, reduce defense spending by roughly $1 trillion over that same period, make substantial cuts in both Social Security and Medicare, and increase taxes by $1 trillion over ten years. This would eliminate the deficit and bring the debt down to a more manageable level.
During the campaign, in contrast, Republicans spoke of rolling back federal spending to 2008 levels. This would have been a 14.4 percent cut from this year’s federal spending, and yet only a small step in the right direction: By 2008, the Bush administration had already driven federal spending to record levels. In fact, federal spending increased by more than 60 percent during the Bush presidency.
And since the election, Republican leaders have been busy “clarifying” that promise. It now seems that they didn’t actually mean that they would roll back all federal spending to 2008 levels, just domestic, discretionary spending. Entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare are off the table, as is defense spending. Homeland security and veterans’ programs would also be spared any cuts. Removing those categories, along with interest on the debt, exempts 83 percent of the budget from any serious cuts. Rolling back the remaining spending to 2008 levels would save barely $100 billion, 2.8 percent of federal spending. That’s a drop in the bucket compared with our $1.3 trillion deficit.
In fact, it’s less than 12 percent of the $853 billion that total federal spending has increased since President Obama took office. It would reduce government spending from 24.3 percent of GDP to 23.6 percent.
Now there’s something to make the Tea Party stand up and cheer.
Also, since the election, some Republicans have actually been calling for an increase in defense spending. Defense might indeed be “different,” of course. But that doesn’t mean defense spending can be unlimited in an era of budget restraint. And even hard-core deficit hawks such as Sen. Jim DeMint (R., S.C.) have been claiming that there is no need to cut Medicare or Social Security benefits. Former House speaker — and possible presidential candidate — Newt Gingrich has been hitting the talk-show circuit, all but morphing into Nancy Pelosi as he warns that the commission is “frightening seniors” by suggesting that those programs might have to be reformed. Campaigning against Obamacare’s Medicare cuts might have been a good political tactic, but suggesting that programs that are $50–100 trillion in the red are fiscally sound is, well, budgetary nonsense of the type we expect from Democrats.
It’s time to face some hard facts: To actually bring the budget into balance by 2019 will require as much as a 20 percent reduction in spending relative to the level to which it would otherwise grow with inflation. That’s total spending, not just domestic discretionary spending. To truly roll back the size of government — to, say, the 18 percent of GDP it consumed during the Clinton presidency — would require even bigger cuts. How does the GOP pretend that we can get there simply by cutting “waste, fraud, and abuse,” and without putting entitlements or defense on the table?
In the run-up to the election, Republicans constantly reassured voters that they understood how they had “lost their way” during the Bush era. If we gave them one more chance, they would leave their big-spending days behind them. Faced with the fiscal nightmare of the Obama-Reid-Pelosi agenda, voters reluctantly gave the car keys back to the Republicans. It’s very early, of course, but if Republicans hope to earn and keep that trust, they are going to have to demonstrate that they are a lot more serious about cutting spending than they have shown us thus far.
— Michael Tanner is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and author of Leviathan on the Right: How Big-Government Conservatism Brought Down the Republican Revolution.