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Mr. Freeze

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On a conference call last night, the administration announced that its upcoming budget would freeze non-security discretionary spending between 2011 and 2013. That's like freezing non-defense discretionary spending, but it also exempts the Department of Homeland Security and the Veteran's Administration from the cuts. Education, Health and Human Services, the Environmental Protection Agency, and pretty much everything else that's not Medicare, Medicaid, or Social Security can be knifed.

The devil here is in the details. The administration is proposing specific cuts in the budget. Most expect those cuts to be pretty unobjectionable. Some programs -- particularly in the education and health spheres -- will even see increases. But it'll be hard to evaluate the policy until we see where the savings are actually coming from. "Non-security discretionary spending" is a big category.

Then comes the collision between the budget and Congress. And here things get dicier. Congress can stick to the administration's freeze but throws out the administration's proposed cuts. The way this works is simple: The administration will target worthless programs, like agricultural subsidies, in order to preserve good programs. But the reason worthless programs live in budget after budget is they have powerful backers. And those backers will rush to Congress to protect their profits. You think Blanche Lincoln, who chairs the Senate Agricultural Committee and is behind in the polls for her 2010 reelection, is going to let her state's subsidies get gored?

Now you've removed some of the cuts, but you still want to hit the overall target. So the cuts could get reapportioned to hit programs that lack powerful constituencies. Many of those programs help the poor.

The danger of proposing a freeze is that the focus is on the freeze, not the precise mix of policies that leads to it. And so it's a lot easier for Congress to change the mix than reject the overall freeze. But a freeze is very hard to do right, particularly in tough economic times. Doing it wrong would be a catastrophe.

Meanwhile, this announcement, coming off a week when the administration pointedly refused to stand up for its health-care bill, is not the sort of thing that's going to excite the base. You can attend a lot of Democratic rallies without ever hearing the chant, "When I say 'spending,' you say 'freeze!' 'SPENDING!'"

Photo credit: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images.

By Ezra Klein  |  January 25, 2010; 9:03 PM ET
Categories:  Budget  
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Comments

But a freeze is very hard to do right, particularly in tough economic times. Doing it wrong would be a catastrophe.

Oh, c'mon. What are the odds that they'll do it wrong??

Posted by: eRobin1 | January 25, 2010 10:00 PM | Report abuse

This is beyond stupid.

The country needs more federal spending, not less, until we're back to reasonable employment and growth levels. This idiocy undercuts the possibility of doing the right things.

It's terrible politics. It's terrible policy. It has no redeeming features.

We can waste billions ensuring bankers get bonuses, while freezing anything that might help real people.

The administration has lost its mind.

And what the $#*k happened to healthcare? It can easily be sold as good for the economy and the deficit and jobs.

Posted by: fuse | January 25, 2010 10:12 PM | Report abuse

Obama, the President who made Bush look good.

Posted by: ck2669 | January 25, 2010 10:13 PM | Report abuse

>>Meanwhile, this announcement, coming off a week when the administration pointedly refused to stand up for its health-care bill, is not the sort of thing that's going to excite the base. >>

A real flair for understatement.

He's just about lost the base. He's lost republicans. His only hope was to do good things, but he seems to have given up on that.

Posted by: fuse | January 25, 2010 10:14 PM | Report abuse

Hopefully this is part of a rejuvenation of this presidency - it is classically middle of the (political) road move, classic Obama, and may even be a very good idea from a fiscal standpoint? (what do I know?)

On the downside it seems like this administration is all over the map, all of the time!! I support the administration taking on all of the (innumerable) problems that plague the country, but it seems that they are pathologically unable to stay on message or get anything DONE... I just hope that they are approaching these problems in a methodical way.

I support the administration taking on debt, EDUCATION and so on, but they need to get the healthcare bill passed first. The Obama whitehouse seems in danger of becoming like one of the people everyone knows who is always starting projects but never finishes!

Posted by: lazza11 | January 25, 2010 10:17 PM | Report abuse

Obama is a one-term President.

In fact, he may even be impeached in 2011 after the GOP takes over the House later this year.

This freeze will just about guarantee that unemployment will worsen and all states will start laying off state workers and gutting state programs.

Posted by: Lomillialor | January 25, 2010 10:20 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, to be fair, is this not exactly what he promised with last budget when he projected forward? That after the initial burst increase in spending he would propose something of a freeze, or pullback or something for the subsequent 3 years?

Posted by: Art27 | January 25, 2010 10:30 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, you are really pulling your punches here. This "plan" is just about the worst possible idea the President could come up with given the continuing disaster that is unemployment. The best you could say about this is that you hope he doesn't really mean it. This was JOHN MCCAIN'S campaign promise, for God's sake! Obama campaigned, in very clear and rational (and correct!) terms, against this. Is he trying to earn his Republican cred? What the hell is going on here?

Posted by: randrewm | January 25, 2010 10:47 PM | Report abuse

Beyond stupid. Exempting "security" means we continue to throw the national wealth at military waste while we screw ordinary people? Not what he meant? Maybe, but it's been that way since Eisenhower and I see no reason to believe this collection of idiots will stop the rot.

Posted by: janinsanfran | January 25, 2010 10:48 PM | Report abuse

Your last sentence made me laugh out loud.

Posted by: scarlota | January 25, 2010 10:51 PM | Report abuse

A freeze on recurring expenditures is absolutely necessary. There should be a burst of non-recurring spending like bridge building and road building for job creation and this type of spending is easy to pull back on in a year or two.

We need to end spending on recurring programs. These are the tough ones because people have a dependance on those programs.

What this really reveals is that smart people in the White House obviously believe the same thing that smart people outside the White House are are saying, the deficit is the scariest thing happening in the world right now.

Inflation like you have never seen before could come in as early as a couple years and that is going to make your paychecks look like they were back in high school.

Posted by: lancediverson | January 25, 2010 10:52 PM | Report abuse

How about we freeze corporate welfare and any additional mystery stimulus money. And avoid creating any new bureaucracies. And touch nothing else.

Am I mistaken, or doesn't the freeze only prevent spending on discretionary programs from going up? So Obama is just saying that, for a little while, these programs will have to get by on the exact same budget they did the year before, after years of formula-based growth often only tagentially related to the mission of the program? Good or bad, only in Washington would that be considered a cut.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | January 25, 2010 11:13 PM | Report abuse

*We need to end spending on recurring programs*

"Recurring programs" are Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, defense, and interest on the national debt, none of which are covered by the freeze. The freeze is political theater as well as a danger-- the truth is that farm subsidies have a lot more political support and are less likely to be cut than funding for NASA, NIH, and NSF, which actually do a lot of good for US competitiveness in the world.

Posted by: tyromania | January 25, 2010 11:15 PM | Report abuse

""Beyond stupid. Exempting "security" means we continue to throw the national wealth at military waste while we screw ordinary people?""

That's easy: if something is important enough to increase spending on, you call it "security."

Posted by: tyromania | January 25, 2010 11:16 PM | Report abuse

Obama campaigned, in very clear and rational (and correct!) terms, against this. Is he trying to earn his Republican cred? What the hell is going on here?

He's trying to ameliorate damage sustained from the (imo wrong-headed) belief that in times of debt the federal government has to tighten its belt...rather than run deficits to fund stimulus packages (at least when other tools of economic stimulus, such as monetary policy or tax cuts, are off the table as they've been tried and found wanting). For a professor, the President is a poor educator.

Posted by: y2josh_us | January 25, 2010 11:16 PM | Report abuse

"In fact, he may even be impeached in 2011 after the GOP takes over the House later this year."

That would be the only thing that would keep me from voting for the Republicans in 2012. If the Republicans impeach Obama, they will lose power as quickly as the acquired it.

I can't emphasize enough what a horrible idea for the Republicans that would be.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | January 25, 2010 11:18 PM | Report abuse

"the deficit is the scariest thing happening in the world right now."

Speaking of laughing out loud. That statement is an absolute joke. Maybe you haven't noticed the deflation we've been experiencing lately?

At this point, I'm really, truly starting to wonder why I worked to help put this Administration in office. Luckily, I'm sure John McCain will open his mouth sometime soon and remind me.

And here I was feeling a bit better after watching Obama's Ohio townhall this weekend. Fool me once...

Posted by: slag | January 25, 2010 11:19 PM | Report abuse

I think this is another one of Obama's half-measures that will please no one. The deficit hounds are going to say he's just shifting around money between the budget and the jobs and stimulus bills. (There is really no pleasing them, because most of them dislike Obama viscerally.) Meanwhile the base is further demoralized by the symbolism of focusing on the deficit when so much of the progressive agenda remains unresolved. What Obama needs to realize is he's toast in 2012 without passionate support from the left. So far that insight eludes him.

Posted by: bmull | January 25, 2010 11:21 PM | Report abuse

""If the Republicans impeach Obama, they will lose power as quickly as the acquired it. I can't emphasize enough what a horrible idea for the Republicans that would be.""

Well, I suppose you have to ask yourself whether the Republicans really mean what they say about Obama being a force of destruction to the American way of life by introducing Marxism to the country or whether they're just lying about it. If they do mean what they say, and you think that's crazy, you shouldn't be supporting them. And if they don't really believe that, then you should ask yourself why you're voting for a bunch of lunatic lying demagogues.

Posted by: tyromania | January 25, 2010 11:30 PM | Report abuse

If the left had a coherent argument, it might help. But this country is ruled by the emotional-intellectual framework in The Road to Serfdom (248 pp.) and Capitalism and Freedom (202 pp.) There is no competing short statement of principles from the left side. If you can point me in the direction of that well-regarded tome, I should appreciate it. But there is none. Instead the liberals are incoherent. Consequently what you have in this country are voters who would rather be out-of-work than to have their government running a deficit -- moreover they believe that it is government spending itself which has hobbled their economy. They do not believe the economics textbooks. This is all nuts, but it is not a fringe view. We even have Chicago economists who aid and abet it for political reasons.

Posted by: Lee_A_Arnold | January 25, 2010 11:34 PM | Report abuse

Unexcited is putting it mildly. This guarantees that I will not be watching the SOTU. Seems like the last thing I'll want to listen to at this rate.

Posted by: Chris_O | January 26, 2010 12:24 AM | Report abuse

"You think Blanche Lincoln, who chairs the Senate Agricultural Committee...is going to let her state's subsidies get gored?"

So, there's the rub: one man's pork is another man's entitlement. I guess Obama could always veto Congress' work on the budget if it goes too far off course.

(My 2 cents: they should take some of the money going to subsidize corn and soybeans and use it to subsidize Farmer's Markets and those who grow the produce that's sold there. That might even create a few jobs in urban and suburban agriculture.)

Posted by: tnoord | January 26, 2010 12:29 AM | Report abuse

tyro:

Because it is my assessment they are the lesser of two lying, demagogic evils, if not always by as much as I'd like. Plus, not every Republican candidate has said Obama is advancing Marxism. Not that such hyperbole is unique to Republicans, who apparently want to destroy the planet, amongst other over-the-top sins. And, frankly, I prefer the Republican agenda, when they have one.

Impeachment as a political ploy is complete abandoment of the agenda. Then, I vote against Republicans or don't vote at all. Might vote against Bob Corker next time, anyway. Color me unimpressed there.

I have voted for our Democratic governor, once.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | January 26, 2010 12:34 AM | Report abuse

Well, Kevin, your assessment is wrong. Boehner and Inhofe are crazy, and Grassley, by dint of the social pressure he faced from within his party, started talking like a crazy person, as well. So you either think that they don't believe that crap, or you actually believe it too. It's not really clear _why_ you would think that impeaching Obama would be bad. After all, if his policy ideas are, as the Republicans say, "the greatest threat to freedom I have seen in the last 20 years," then impeachment may well be something worth pursuing. But if you think such ideas are madness, than the smart thing to do is repudiate them, because supporting them can only lead to bad things (eg, state-endorsed use of torture, stupid wars, etc.)

Posted by: tyromania | January 26, 2010 12:49 AM | Report abuse

I was initially pretty appalled by this announcement, but I think it may be better politics than it appears at first blush.

First of all, you have to read the announcement in the context of the administration's newly populist tone about banks and corporations. (And maybe Plouffe's defiant editorial the other day, as well.) Nothing else the White House has done has suggested it wants to veer right. With that in mind, I think the odds are at least decent that the spending freezing is meant to be a populist measure, not a conservative one.

Moreover, it appears spending will be frozen at the 2011 level, which is likely to be quite high. And you have to keep in mind that Obama really does seem serious about cutting the deficit, with measures both large and small. It's impossible to know for sure, but I don't think it's inconceivable that the administration was planning on trimming back spending in 2012 anyway. If that's the case, announcing this freeze now is essentially the administration requesting an advance on the political dividends it had expected to earn in 2012.

As Obama pointed out last year, a spending freeze is a hatchet, not a scalpel. But scalpels are for technocrats. If you're trying to head up an angry mob, you'd better be packing the biggest axe you can find.

The GOP will certainly use the phrase to attack Obama for any new spending, but as every progressive on the planet has already pointed out, Republicans are going to attack Obama anyway, no matter what.

So while I'm skeptical of the policy merits of the freeze, I'm much more ambivalent about its political virtues. I think, combined with an unapologetic message about punishing banks and pushing back against corporations (hammering on the Citizens United ruling, for instance), it's not nearly as much of a concession to the right as people are assuming. If Obama defends the freeze with a suitably combative tone, and avoids his usual conciliatory language, I think it's a measure that actually has a decent chance of resonating with voters in the middle, who are profoundly disgusted with both major parties.

Which would, most importantly of all, greatly improve health care's odds of ever seeing daylight.

Posted by: WHSTCL | January 26, 2010 12:49 AM | Report abuse


Ezra...

Strikes me that no-one here, really, has tried to put the last week's events into any kind of intelligent context...not saying that this is Obama's strategy, mind you - but, I certainly wouldn't bet against it.

1/ Lost supermajority.

2/ Reversed re healthcare...ie., firmly placed same in Congress's lap - ie., it's their failure, should it fail...on the other hand, he'll certainly be happy to sign onto anything in the least worthwhile...

3/ (and, this is where it starts getting interesting) Shifts to populist (certainly NOT meant negatively) line re financial reforms - but, w/minimal details...which means he may be working towards measures such as a Tobin tax - which would certainly raise plenty of extra money.

4/ Announces spending freeze in the near future - BUT...exactly what would that mean, in the context of a possible new influx of financial sector related inflows?

Methinks it's about time we had a HARD look at EXACTLY what he said - in BOTH statements! - before sensible analysts wrote him off...as yet another cheap fool.

John Henry Calvinist

Posted by: jhenryc | January 26, 2010 7:48 AM | Report abuse

Tyro:

"Well, Kevin, your assessment is wrong."

It certainly could be. Nobody is perfect. However, thus far, I regard Democrats no different in hyperbole and demagoguery (on the whole) and largely inferior in their policy initiatives. If not by a lot.

And I don't think every Republican is characterizing Obama's plans as "the greatest threat to freedom in 20 years". Though, even if they were, I find such posturing and hyperbole a depressingly inevitable part of politics.

And, frankly, I only get to vote for (or against) my two senators from Tennessee, my congressman, who I will vote against--democrat Steve Cohen--because I think he's as crazy as you might think Boehner, Inhofe and Grassley are. But he's been there for a while, and my vote against him (not for the first time) will probably not change that. And the president.

@tyro: "After all, if his policy ideas are, as the Republicans say, 'the greatest threat to freedom I have seen in the last 20 years,' then impeachment may well be something worth pursuing."

No, because then that proves that you're right--they are crazy, at least politically--but it also demonstrates what the impeachment of Bill Clinton did, that those particular Republicans weren't interested in advancing a policy agenda of actual legislation. The Clinton impeachment drove me crazy. For so many reasons. Not the least of which is, after the first successful impeachment of a president for *their policy*, every president of every party would thereafter be impeached. Which is not a way to run a country, in my opinion. Even Ann Coulter has said the idea of impeaching Obama and trying him for treason is the sort of thing we'd do if we wanted to become a banana republic. That there is a place to show your dissatisfaction with a politician, and that's at the polls on election day.

Because I may think a politician is pursuing the worst policy initiatives in the last 20 years--although how Obamacare could be considered worse that Clintoncare, I dunno--is a great reason to argue that they should be voted out in the next election. Not impeached.

Democrats made a lot of noises about impeaching Bush, but never did it. If Republicans try to impeach Obama, they prove their crazier than the Democrats (and unserious about governance) to rock-ribbed conservatives like me.

As far as state endorsed torture and stupid wars go, I take your point. Still, Gitmo is still open, the only plan for it is to move it stateside, we still have two wars going on--and, frankly, most of the Democrats (because they were mislead by those rascally Republicans) signed off on those wars. Some of them with great, flag-waving, poll-reading enthusiasm. So, though I do not care for pre-emptive wars, I don't judge the Democrats to be the standard-bearers there, anymore than the Republicans.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | January 26, 2010 8:14 AM | Report abuse

@jhenryc:
"4/ Announces spending freeze in the near future - BUT...exactly what would that mean, in the context of a possible new influx of financial sector related inflows?"

Just enough hope to make the eventual disappointment that much more frustrating.

Posted by: eRobin1 | January 26, 2010 9:14 AM | Report abuse

What's baffled me in the last year is how impatient liberals have been. This vague, undefined "spending freeze" is announced yesterday and I get a text from a friend this morning that we need to find a primary challenge for President Obama for 2012. I'm not saying I'm onboard for a spending freeze. All I'm saying is that I'm going to wait to see the plan before I freak out. I'm not going to freak out that the public option was removed from HCR if it ends up passing (I know, it's not looking good) and there's evidence that it would not have passed with the public option. Just take a deep breath and wait for all the information before you blow up.

Posted by: MosBen | January 26, 2010 9:57 AM | Report abuse

"Just take a deep breath and wait for all the information before you blow up."

just a year, and already in these columns, is talk of a one-term president, impeachment...the freeze just announced last night has already been concluded to be a failure...health care reform written off.
the seeds of our economic disaster were sown years ago in the clinton administration when everyone was happily living in a fanstasyland, and then neglected through the next eight years.
obama inherited this and is trying different things....but no sooner does an idea appear, the crepe paper is being hung.
this is left over from our eras of needing to be instantly gratified with quick fixes, credit cards and denial. if something doesnt work or is very difficult, the patience level is about as great as that of a room filled with pre-schoolers.
it is getting ridiculous.

Posted by: jkaren | January 26, 2010 10:24 AM | Report abuse

*What's baffled me in the last year is how impatient liberals have been. *

There's a difference between being impatient because things haven't been done yet and being impatient because the president is being _counterproductive_ to the base's goals.

I think Josh Marshall put it best, tongue firmly in cheek:

"I'm psyched that we're done messing around with major social reforms and finally getting down to the real business of election year gimmicks."

Posted by: constans | January 26, 2010 12:01 PM | Report abuse

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