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Taking the freeze seriously

Jared Bernstein tries to sell the freeze:

First, an important note on timing. No one is arguing that we should take our foot off the accelerator today, when the economic recovery remains fragile and job growth has yet to return. In fact, you’ll hear from the President tomorrow night about measures we should undertake right away to jumpstart job creation. In his words and deeds, the President has made clear that recovery comes first. But that doesn’t mean we should wait to start changing the same bad habits in Washington that left a $1.3 trillion deficit on our doorstep when we entered office in January 2009, especially when we can do so without cutting back on our jobs agenda.

Second, a little background on freeze-eology: there are two ways to do a freeze like this: (1) an across-the-board freeze on every program outside of national security; and (2) a surgical approach where overall totals are frozen but some individual programs go up and others go down. In short, a hatchet versus a scalpel.

During the campaign, you may recall that John McCain touted option 1 – the hatchet approach of an across-the-board freeze.

The President was critical of that approach then, and we would be critical of it now. It’s not what we’re proposing. To the contrary, the entire theory of the President’s proposed freeze is to dial up the stuff that will support job growth and innovation while dialing down the stuff that doesn’t. Under our plan, some discretionary spending will go up; some will go down. That’s a big difference from a hatchet.

On some level, though, the administration can't have it both ways. The category of spending they're going after has traditionally grown at 5 percent a year. Over the three years that the freeze is supposed to last, that's more than $100 billion that won't be spent. That's a lot of money. Moreover, it will be Congress, not the administration, that decides which programs actually get cut and which are preserved, or see their funding increased. And Congress isn't very precise with a scalpel, and they often let pharmaceutical representatives, or local agricultural companies, tell them where to cut.

Additionally, the administration has exempted not only the Pentagon, but also all the members of the Department of Homeland Security, from the cuts. There's a lot of waste in those sectors, but Congress won't be allowed to go after any of it. That means there are fewer bad programs standing between Congress and the good programs.

What the administration has done in proposing a freeze is very different than if they had come to Congress and proposed an elimination of agricultural subsidies. This policy is about a general spending target, not a set of low-value programs. And that made political sense. The administration wanted headlines for its commitment to austerity. They've got them. "You can't afford to do everything that you might have always wanted to do," a senior administration official told The Washington Post. But then they can't also be telling people that this freeze will allow them to do everything worth doing, as if there was no freeze at all.

By Ezra Klein  |  January 26, 2010; 2:50 PM ET
Categories:  Budget  
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Ezra says, "Additionally, the administration has exempted not only the Pentagon, but also all the members of the Department of Homeland Security, from the cuts. There's a lot of waste in those sectors, but Congress won't be allowed to go after any of it."

Not literally true. Congress is allowed to go after spending in those departments any old time it chooses to do so. What Obama is failing to do is encourage Congress to go after waste in those departments or to use his bully pulpit to move popular opinion regarding what in those departments might (or might not) be waste.

Posted by: JonathanTE | January 26, 2010 3:13 PM | Report abuse

An "across-the-board" spending freeze is ALWAYS the coward's way out of a budget problem. This one is no different. Bernstein as much as admitted that to Rachel Maddow when he mentioned that every line item has it own constituency. For the administration to suggest that they didn't know that going in insults my intelligence, and I am sick and tired of having my intelligence insulted by the President and his crew.

Posted by: adagio847 | January 26, 2010 4:45 PM | Report abuse

It's really bad political messaging -- stupid is probably the kindest way to phrase it. On a policy level it's marginal.

The administration just needs to focus on two things that are interrelated: jobs and the economy. Independent voters might care about the deficit, but they are willing to forgive a lot in a good economy (not unlike many other voters).

The worst part about this is that it undercuts the administration's credibility. You can attack the budget deficit by increasing growth in the economy. You can increase the budget deficit with a spending freeze in place if you DON'T increase growth.

The administration needs to keep the message simple at this point. More than ever, Carville's dictum: "It's the economy stupid" holds true.

Posted by: JPRS | January 26, 2010 11:23 PM | Report abuse

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