Exchequer

Bring on the Draconian Cuts

Hark, unless mine eyes are cheated, it appears that the House has passed a bill — on energy and water development — that would spend less money than we spent last year. Indeed, that is the case: The $30.4 billion bill is $2.9 billion less than was appropriated for 2013. If my always-suspect English-major math is correct, that $2.9 billion represents a full 0.08 percent of 2012 federal outlays.

The White House has threated to veto these “draconian cuts.” Seriously — OMB put out a statement calling these “draconian cuts.” Does anybody over there know what “draconian” means?

Among the prize pigs being slaughtered by our beady-eyed Republican friends is a multimillion-dollar national propaganda campaign on behalf of alternative-energy interests, which went down thanks to Representative Tim Walberg of Michigan. It is bad enough that the federal government subsidizes these politically connected energy firms — spending millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money to push their wares as well is a bit much to stomach.

Representative Mike Burgess (R., Texas) offered an amendment that would block federal regulation of refrigerators and incandescent light bulbs, while Representative Marsha Blackburn (R., Tenn.) took aim at ceiling-fan regulations. ARPA-E, the Department of Energy’s answer to DARPA, would see its funding cut by $215 million — that’s millions with an “m,” there, out of a budget in the trillions — and various other programs would be trimmed and consolidated.

Draconian cuts. Indeed.

This is all very good, and it deserves to become law. But it also offers a dramatic illustration of how difficult it is to cut spending without cutting the areas where the spending actually happens. This may be a minuscule cut in terms of overall federal spending, but it’s an 81 percent cut for ARPA-E, and a 50 percent cut for the newly consolidated delivery/reliability/efficiency/renewables program. The people who receive grants and other financial benefits under those programs will howl, and — more important — those who earn their living staffing those programs will fight to the death to avoid the hunt for productive employment in the real economy. That is why spending reductions on those kinds of programs are never really enough: You have to eliminate the program entirely. Conservative populists sometimes get mocked for promising to cut entire cabinet agencies, but, in the long term, that is the most promising model for achieving a healthy fiscal balance.

Obligatory reminder: None of this matters very much without entitlement reform and controls on defense spending. Non-defense discretionary spending, i.e. the stuff everybody promises to cut or cap, is a small part of federal spending.

The Department of Energy, which like the Department of Education is a creature of the Carter administration, does some useful things: For historical reasons, it is entrusted with maintenance of the country’s nuclear arsenal, and it sponsors some worthwhile research. None of which justifies having a cabinet agency to tell us what kind of light bulbs to use. The best course of action would be to turn the department’s defense functions over to Defense and its research functions over to the National Science Foundation and to zero out most of the rest. That’s what real fiscal reform would look like.

Instead, we’ll probably be treated to a veto and drawn-out fight over a minuscule reduction in federal outlays simply because every dollar of federal spending eventually lands in the pocket of somebody with a powerful interest in receiving it. None of that is helped by the Obama administration’s apparent ideological commitment to maximizing the federal government’s control over the U.S. economy and its resources, a project that it pursues relentlessly while wondering why its more excitable critics describe its agenda as socialism.

Yesterday, I wrote about “Obamaphones for millionaires,” the federal program under which telephone companies serving Maui beach developments and Scottsdale golf communities receive subsidies amounting to thousands of dollars per year for every line they install. The comments were predictable: Self-identified conservatives wrote in to assure me that, while they agree that federal spending is out of control, these programs — just these — are really, truly necessary, and that the telecoms receiving those billions of dollars a year in subsidies are totally deserving. Every dollar in spending creates its own constituency, whether it produces cash in hand or a government-funded national ad campaign for your business. Representatives Walberg, Burgess, et al. will have worked a minor miracle if they can make the trivial reductions they have proposed a reality.

— Kevin D. Williamson is a roving correspondent for National Review and author of the newly published The End Is Near and It’s Going to Be Awesome.

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