Last week, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives voted to reduce FY2011 federal spending by $61 billion. Democrats responded as if Armageddon had erupted. “Irresponsible,” complained Senate majority leader Harry Reid. Taking “a meat axe to the budget,” offered Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York. “Severe and indiscriminate,” added House minority leader Nancy Pelosi. “Dangerous,” warned the New York Times.
A million people will be thrown out of work, according to one report. Children will starve, said another. What next? “Volcanoes, earthquakes, human sacrifice, mass hysteria, dogs and cats living together ?”
Before we get too far into worrying that the sky is falling, a bit of perspective might be in order. The cuts were part of a $1.35 trillion bill to fund the government for the seven months remaining in FY2011. The spending cuts were a reduction from 2010 spending levels, the same levels that were contained in the “continuing resolution” that Congress passed in December to fund the government through March 4. In 2010, the federal government spent $3.46 trillion. Assuming a 2010 baseline for this year’s budget makes those “draconian” budget cuts equal to just 1.7 percent of this year’s federal spending.
Or look at it another way. The administration just announced that it expects this year’s budget deficit to be $1.65 trillion. Thus, the House’s budget cuts amounted to 3.6 percent of the deficit. Think about that: Republicans just cut less than 4 percent of the spending that we don’t have the money to pay for. Heck, our budget deficit for last month was $48 billion, so apparently we’ve covered January. Whew!
What part of “broke” do the Democrats not understand?
Even after these budget cuts, government spending will have increased by 24 percent since President Obama took office. And those spending increases came on top of the spending increases during the Bush administration. By “slashing” government programs, Republicans will have reduced the size of government from 23.8 percent of GDP to just 23.4 percent. As recently as ten years ago, under President Clinton, the federal government consumed just 18 percent of GDP.
This is like taking a cupcake away from the world’s fattest man and having somebody scream that he’s starving.
For the most part, this was a serious exercise in budget cutting. Sure, some of it was political positioning (were five separate amendments to defund Obamacare really necessary?) or silliness (Rep. Steve Womack of Arizona introduced an amendment to take away Obama’s teleprompter), and many of the targets (Planned Parenthood, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting) were easy ones for Republicans. Still, this represented the first significant reduction in federal spending in many years, with the cuts spread across virtually the entire government, including defense and homeland security. And to paraphrase the late Sen. Everett Dirksen, “Sixty-one billion here, 61 billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money.”
On the other hand, before Republicans dislocate a shoulder patting themselves on the back, they should realize just how far they still have to go. To actually bring the budget into balance will clearly require much bigger cuts. Going into the FY2012 budget, Republicans are going to have to be prepared to cut even more popular programs, including bigger cuts in defense, and to finally tackle entitlements. Recently, majority whip Eric Cantor and Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan have indicated that they may be willing to seriously take on that challenge.
That’s what makes the upcoming fight over preserving the $61 billion in cuts so important. Once the Senate passes its budget — which probably will have far fewer cuts — we can expect another round of stories about how “unreasonable” Republicans are for insisting on those $61 billion in savings. But if Republicans back down from making these cuts, there will be no chance of withstanding the howls of outrage that can be expected to greet the next round of cuts.
Let’s hope they stay unreasonable.
— 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.