Tuesday’s Senate test votes on two spending cut packages—one of which (designed by House Republicans) cuts $61 billion from current spending, and the other of which (proffered by the Obama administration) cuts only $6.5 billion is basically a sideshow. Both packages have problems and neither confronts the nation’s deeper fiscal ills. Obama’s spending plan is far too small given the nation’s fiscal challenges; the Republican package, also too small, substitutes political theater for practical spending restraint.
There’s nothing wrong with the $6.5 billion in spending cuts that the Obama administration has proposed but it’s hugely disingenuous to say that the cuts are all the nation can do to rein in spending. It’s true that, given the utter stupidity and ineffectiveness of most of the programs slated for elimination—duplicative vocational education programs that don’t actually train anyone and farm subsidies for the wealthy—hardly anybody would even notice if all of them disappeared tomorrow. That said, at .18 percent of the total federal budget, the package is way too timid.
The Republican bill, however, represents a massive overreach that Democrats will be forced to reject outright. While nearly all of the sizeable spending cuts make sense, certain language that the President and Democratic Senators obviously won’t accept as part of a spending cut bill is also included. There’s no chance that President Obama would give up his signature health care bill or sell out all of his administration’s environmental priorities in order to resolve a budget fight. There’s even less chance that Harry Reid will accept a nuclear waste depository in his state as part of a budget package. Whatever one thinks of these priorities, and I’m mostly in agreement with Republicans on them, they are not going to happen as part of a spending bill and represent mere rounding errors in the overall budget picture anyway. Plenty of other programs proposed for cutbacks, particularly subsidies for pregnant mothers, are also likely to offer the Democrats good media fodder in attacking Republicans as heartless. (In fact, the program Republicans want to cut is needless and duplicative.) And, in any case, by ignoring defense and veterans programs as well as all mandatory spending, the Republican proposal still represents a net budget cut of less than 2 percent.
The problems with the budget packages indicate the problems with the debate as it currently exists: no series of cuts to non-defense, domestic discretionary spending (the only place that either side has proposed cuts) will ever get the nation’s fiscal house into order. The debate has to evolve and both sides have to take a look at spending that goes beyond a small sliver of the budget.