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There's no such thing as easy spending cuts

If you're wondering why the GOP's "Pledge to America" didn't actually recommend any specific spending cuts, here's the answer: There's no such thing as government waste. At least not as politicians define it.

When most people think about the government wasting money, they think about it getting a very low return for the dollars it spends. Paying someone to make copies and then paying someone else to throw them away. When politicians talk about waste, they mean the government spending money that no one will miss if they take it away. But there's very little of that, as every staffer in every congressman's office is always looking for an easy pot of money that can be used to pay for their boss's initiatives. The authors of the health-care reform bill, for instance scoured the federal budget looking for easy money they could put toward the program.

Rather, the things that experts agree is waste -- think farm subsidies -- are protected by powerful constituencies and politicians. So most of that stuff is hard to cut. Then you have the expenditures that people of a certain ideology think are waste, such as the Department of Education or many of the Pentagon's projects. But there's not nearly enough agreement to cut them. Then you have a lot of stuff that just isn't waste but costs a lot of money.

That's why the Pledge keeps things so vague. Jonathan Martin, a reporter at the Politico, just tweeted that Kevin McCarthy, one of the Pledge's authors, "can't name a single program House R[epublican]s w[ou]ld cut." Which means that, at this moment, there's not a single current program the House Republicans would cut.

But if you want to think through what it would mean to balance the budget based on spending cuts, look at this report from the Center for American Progress that tried to develop a realistic plan for doing that. The center worked hard enough on it that it has been attracting substantial praise from right-wing think tanks. And what it shows is that you end up slashing a lot of highway funding, a lot of much-beloved tax expenditures, the NIH and, well, pretty much everything else. Veterans' benefits. Border security. The Federal Aviation Administration. The National Park Service.

I'll be posting an interview with one of the authors of that report a bit later today. But it's hard to imagine politicians who aren't brave enough to even name their spending cuts withstanding the ferocious opposition that actually cutting spending would elicit.

By Ezra Klein  | September 24, 2010; 10:31 AM ET
Categories:  Budget  
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Next: What wasn't there


But wait a minute. Isn't there a budget item called "Government Handouts"? Because that's what every Republican would tell you they want to cut (at least the ones who aren't actually in office).

How do you explain to them that what they think of as government handouts are really things like the FAA?

Posted by: KathyF | September 24, 2010 10:42 AM | Report abuse

"Necessary spending for national security" = gov't spending in my district

"Government waste and fraud" = gov't spending in that guy's district.

Posted by: lol-lol | September 24, 2010 10:49 AM | Report abuse

KathyF - I think the "Government Handouts" budget line item is right after the $500 billion line item for "Waste, Fraud, & Abuse".

It has to be there somewhere...

Posted by: LP20041 | September 24, 2010 11:06 AM | Report abuse

It seems to me that the way forward would be to convert tax breaks (which don't show up on the budget) into explicit subsidies which do. Then you phase them out.

Of course the problem is even in that scenario cutting things like the mortgage interest deduction would still be hard. Though I imagine it's an easier sell if you can pass it off as a spending cut rather than a tax increase.

Posted by: VictorGalis | September 24, 2010 11:12 AM | Report abuse

I have a pet peeve with people talking about "cutting the Department of Education"--which makes it sound like you're just firing a bunch of bureaucrats.

Last I checked, the two largest items in the Department of Education's budget were special education funding and Pell Grant funding. So either you're in favor those programs, or you're not. Whether there's a Department of Education is a secondary matter in terms of cutting the budget.

(I realize Ezra was just picking a random example. Just happened to spark this mini-rant.)

Posted by: edwardlahoa | September 24, 2010 11:27 AM | Report abuse

Hmm...Where are all the vitriolic right wing knee jerk comments?

They must be googling for something to repeat. I'll wait a few minutes and check back. I hope to find an original, thoughtful and substantive response to this awesome post.
Wade Branstner

Posted by: wade4now | September 24, 2010 11:27 AM | Report abuse

Come on! The Republicans can identify at least $100 million dollars of programs with funny sounding names, easy! Surely that's enough to eliminate the deficit!

Posted by: MosBen | September 24, 2010 11:34 AM | Report abuse

Surely we can cut the budget for the Ministry of Silly Walks. They haven't produced a walk that was more than amusing in decades!

Posted by: MosBen | September 24, 2010 11:37 AM | Report abuse

Proposal: What if Obama, in a speech, offered to put whatever budget balancing proposal the Republicans could come up with to a referendum in the next election. Make the terms of the deal clear--the proposal must balance the budget by specifying clearly articulated cuts within a short time-frame, say 5 years. Call the bluff--show us how you would do it, we'll put it to a vote. Better yet, ask the GOP to submit up to 5 plans and let them compete against Obama's proposal to address the deficit once the economy has shown robust recovery.

Posted by: Lindy4 | September 24, 2010 11:51 AM | Report abuse

Agreed, the Republicans are gutless slime.

However, this post underscores the need to think long and hard before starting up a new government program. They're like bedbugs.

Posted by: ostap666 | September 24, 2010 12:35 PM | Report abuse

Ezra ... PLEASE!

"But it's hard to imagine politicians who aren't brave enough to even name their spending cuts..."

I am sorry but if ANYTHING is bi-partisan ... it would be politicians not brave enough to give the bad news before an election.

So if you want us to punish the Republicans on that you need to expect all Democrats to be voted out of office as well and the House and Senate to become completely filled with Independents and 3rd Party candidates.

Unless ... that is ... *gasps* you expect us to hold THEM accountable for not being specific, and look the other way when YOUR candidates do the same thing?

Posted by: chromenhawk | September 24, 2010 2:21 PM | Report abuse

Of course Ezra thinks there are no easy cuts; he and his kind can't imagine the federal government spending on anything and everything, so there's now way he's qualified to decide if something's "easy" to cut. As for whether Republicans are being specific, that's pretty rich from supporters of a President who couldn't even produce an actual budget.

Even though Obama has exploded the budget to $3.8 trillion, it is also still true that returning us to 2008 spending levels - across the board - would balance the budget in a matter of a few years. Ah, the horror.

Posted by: INTJ | September 24, 2010 3:39 PM | Report abuse

Spending cuts are easy.

Cut spending.

When people complain, politely remind them that it isn't their money.

If they protest that it actually is their money, remind them that their taxes have been cut too, and all of their money has been returned for them to use as they see fit.

If some say they are worse off, remind them that they were collectively living off of someone else's dime, but now they will no longer have the force of the state enforcing that arrangement - it will now have to be voluntary.

What's the worse thing that can happen? They vote you out and you don't become a career politician? I guess that's the price of doing the right thing.

Posted by: justin84 | September 24, 2010 6:06 PM | Report abuse

Simplify the tax code for starters. Three to four marginal rates, NO deductions, NO enticements for social or economic engineering...a tax code that funds the government, PERIOD. That could save billions. And one in which everybody pays something. One of the biggest reasons that we can't control the federal budget is because 50% of the population doesn't pay income taxes. They just get to vote for programs and giveaways that the other 50% pay for. (And stop equating payroll taxes with income taxes. They aren't the same - and even though Social Security and Medicare are the biggest debt problems, they should be solved separately.)

If there are no easy cuts then make difficult cuts. If Greece can do it so can we. And if we can't do it until we have to, then it will be all the harder. But rest assured, we will be forced to make cuts either way, just as Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain have been forced to. That is reality folks.

Posted by: liseliz | September 25, 2010 10:14 AM | Report abuse

Politicians will cut spending in ways that affect the population in small irritating ways, such as California cutting out toilet paper in parks, so the public will shout 'No, please take my money. We're sorry we said you waste it". They will not cut their lavish lifestyles, expensive offices and tax paid vacations called junkets. The fact that Ezra dismisses getting rid of the useless Dept of Ed so easily shows they still do not get it.

Easy cuts would indeed include the Dept of Ed along with the Dept of Labor. Since both have been enacted education standards have fallen and wages for workers have stagnated. What good have either of these two depts done for those of us on "Main Street"? How about a flat tax that would eliminate the need for the IRS? I know many of you think PBS a wonderful thing but would you rather have bridges that don't fall down or Big Bird to baby sit your kids? Federal pensions and unionized government workers cost the rest of us billions every year. Why should you pay taxes to fund lavish pensions when you can't even fund a modest one for yourself?

There are indeed many places to cut a federal government that spends 3 trillion a year and that's just the start. At the same time cuts at the state and local levels need to be done. It does not require 30-50% of all the income generated in the US to maintain the infrastucture (which they have also failed at. How did our infrastructure suddenly become "crumbling". It took years of neglect and not doing the job we paid them to do to get there.) provide for our defense (another mission rife with fraud and abuse) secure our borders (totally failed us in this regard) and write checks for senior and military benefits.

It would really help the citizens of this country if journ-o-lists would keep an eye on government and help us by making public the huge amount of waste, fraud and abuse committed by our elected officials. Instead of just being cheerleaders for which ever side they have chosen to represent.

Sigh, our kingdom for an unbiased hard nosed investigative reporter. Journalism, like government has become disfuctional and is NOT on the side of the people. Remember, journalists make a living on this dog and pony show called GOP vs. Dems. They have a need to perpetuate the status quo, it's how they make a living. At our expense, of course.

Posted by: manapp99 | September 25, 2010 10:59 AM | Report abuse

I think the fact that Ezra could write this post shows the problem with how government is organised.

When a private organisation wants to stop spending money, it doesn't just stop doing activities directed towards particular outputs, like firing the person who writes their newsletters (for example), not least because most of their activities will, be at least close to being profitable. The other things they will do is re-organise, to cut overheads: move to different office space, outsource support tasks, or if a large organisation, rationalise dispersed activities.

The terms of the conversation about government are focused on cutting outputs. I suspect it is because a) politicians lack actual experience in real organisations and b) the GOP actually wants to cut spending on poor people.

Posted by: albamus | September 25, 2010 11:15 AM | Report abuse

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