We initially supported the deal House Speaker John Boehner cut with the White House to cut $38.5 billion from the rest of the fiscal year 2011 budget. It was only a pittance in the context of all of Washington’s red ink, but it seemed an acceptable start, even if we assumed it would be imperfect in its details. What we didn’t assume was that the agreement would be shot through with gimmicks and one-time savings. What had looked in its broad outlines like a modest success now looks like a sodden disappointment.
All the cuts in the deal aren’t equal. The ones that matter most are the cuts in discretionary spending that reduce the budget baseline in future years. Even with more the details of the deal released early yesterday morning, the exact numbers are still shrouded in confusion, but it is clear the cuts are much less than meets the eye — the gimmickry is not merely around the edges.
The $38.5 billion includes real cuts, but also a dog’s breakfast of budgetary legerdemain. According to the Associated Press, the deal purports to save $2.5 billion “from the most recent renewal of highway programs that can’t be spent because of restrictions set by other legislation.” It gets another $4.9 billion by capping a reserve fund for the victims of crime that also wasn’t going to be spent this year — a long-standing trick of appropriators. The Washington Post reports that a notional $3.5 billion cut from the Children’s Health Insurance Program “would affect only rewards for states that make an extra effort to enroll children. But officials with knowledge of the budget deal said that most states were unlikely to qualify for the bonuses and that sufficient money would be available for those that did.” And so on.
There’s realism and then there’s cynicism. This deal — oversold and dependent on classic Washington budget trickery — comes too close to the latter. John Boehner has repeatedly said he’s going to reject “business as usual,” but that’s what he’s offered his caucus. It’s one thing for Tea Party Republicans to vote for a cut that falls short of what they’d get if the controlled all of Washington; it’s another thing for them, after making so much of bringing transparency and honesty to the Beltway, to vote for a deal sold partly on false pretenses.
As they push a bargain that is still not fully understood, Boehner and the leadership have put their members in an awful fix with another deadline to keep the government open fast approaching. We’d vote “no,” even if we understand the impulse to move on to more important matters and to avoid a leap into the dark that might include a politically damaging shutdown. At the very least, freshmen and other conservatives should be frank about the deal’s shortcomings, refusing to exaggerate its merits as their leadership often has. The episode is strike one against the speakership of John Boehner.