Given a lot of the rhetoric coming out of Washington and mainstream media outlets these days, one could be forgiven for believing that the United States has entered a new age of unprecedented austerity. This is hardly the case. Indeed, despite the best efforts of an insurgent Republican majority in the House of Representatives — elected in 2010 as a rebuke to Democratic fiscal recklessness — federal spending continues to rise.
When Congress passed the Budget Control Act (BCA) — legislation to raise the debt ceiling that called for about $1.8 trillion in spending cuts over ten years — in August, the agreement was hailed by both sides as “the deepest spending cut since World War II” (freshman GOP Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois) that would bring federal spending “to its lowest level as a share of the economy since the Eisenhower administration” (President Obama).
Of course, it is easy for Congress and the president to take credit for large spending cuts when the majority of those cuts aren’t scheduled to occur until the later part of the next decade. Actually cutting spending now has proved far more difficult, and Washington’s inability to reign in federal spending in the near term offers plenty of reasons to doubt whether those future cuts will ever occur.
Although the BCA scheduled a majority of its proposed spending cuts for the latter part of the ten-year budget window, the discretionary-spending level set for fiscal year 2012 ($1.043 trillion) did constitute a modest $7 billion decrease compared to what the government spent in fiscal year 2011 ($1.050 trillion). At least, that’s what was supposed to happen.
The BCA also included a provision (which most lawmakers only recently became aware of) that exempts federal “emergency” spending from the annual caps. Over the weekend, the Senate voted 72–27 to approve an additional $8.6 billion in emergency disaster relief on top of the $1.043 trillion limit. But when it came time to vote on a House-approved measure to pay for the additional funding — via a A Republican effort, led by Sen. Jeff Sessions (R., Ala.), ranking member on the Senate Budget Committee, to offset the additional funding with a 1.83 percent across-the-board rescission, the Senate declined, 43–56, largely on party lines. Every Democrat voted no.
They defended their opposition to paying for the disaster relief by arguing they were simply abiding by the terms of the BCA. However, the fact remains that when the final tab is calculated, including disaster spending and a number of other exempted appropriations, discretionary spending for fiscal year 2012 comes in at about $1.054 trillion — a $4 billion increase compared with last year.
Only in Washington would this be considered a sign of austerity. And yet President Obama and his Democratic allies continue to insist that the government has done just about everything it can to reign in the federal budget (short of raising taxes, of course). Voters looking for a defining embodiment of the choice they will be presented with in 2012 should look no further: Given the opportunity to approve a minuscule spending cut that would, however slightly, change the course of spending in Washington, Senate Democrats refused.
But this disheartening fact — the federal government will spend more next year than it did this year — also poses a problem for Republicans. Indeed, a significant number of House GOP freshmen supported the BCA, hailing it as an historic spending cut. But they were sent to Washington to demand that the federal government starting spending less now, and that’s just not happening. And to point this out in an effort to counter Democratic claims that austerity is already upon us would be to essentially acknowledge their lack of success. “People keep hearing that federal spending is going down,” says a GOP Senate aide. “But spending is still going up. That’s why we have a 9 percent approval rating.”
On the other hand, one could argue that given the temerity of their goal — challenging the entrenched culture of rampant spending in Washington — Republicans in Congress have fared reasonably well. As Sen. Jeff Sessions (R., Ala.), ranking member on the Senate Budget Committee, argued on the Senate floor recently: “House Republicans have worked vigilantly all year to change our debt course. . . . The great shame is that they never had willing partners in President Obama and his Democratic-led Senate.”
Speaking in Osawatomie, Kan., earlier this month, President Obama boasted that he has “already signed nearly $1 trillion of spending cuts into law” before proceeding to make the case for a massive tax increase. In 2012, voters should demand that he explain why a federal government that can’t even cut $7 billion from a $1 trillion budget (0.7 percent) deserves a single dime in additional tax revenue.
— Andrew Stiles is the Franklin Center’s 2011 Thomas L. Rhodes Journalism Fellow.